“People wanted an administration that was much more ruthless than the one they’d had on September the 10th”: Christopher Hitchens on Bush, Torture, and “Harsh Measures” Populism (Authoritarianism from Below)

This weekend, Christopher Hitchens was asked whether Bush should be prosecuted for war crimes, in particular with regard to authorizing torture in interrogations, to which Hitchens gave a shocking answer.

His argument was, essentially, no (unless it was clearly demanded by the majority of the American people).


Because President Bush was responding to popular sentiment in authorizing torture!

Although I think that Bush should still be held legally responsible, Hitchens makes an important (if shocking) contextual point.

Most Americans, in response to 9-11, wanted from their president an AUTHORITARIAN RESPONSE.

And this is exactly what Bush gave them.

Here’s Hitchens’s exact statement on this (as reported in New York magazine):

Continuing his discourse on torture policy, Hitchens then claimed that the Bush administration’s commitment to harsh interrogation techniques, which he considers torture, derived from a desire among Americans for a more “ruthless” government. “It has to be admitted by every American that in the majority after the 9/11 Commission, people wanted an administration that was much more ruthless than the one they’d had on September the 10th,” he said.

“I know something for a sure thing,” Hitchens continued. “The demand for torture and other methods I would describe as illegal, the demand to go outside the Geneva conventions — all this came from below. What everyone wants to say is this came from a small clique around the vice-president. It’s not educational. It doesn’t enlighten anyone to behave as if that were true. This is our society wanting and demanding harsh measures.” Therefore, he went on, the demand for prosecution or other measures against Bush administration officials would likewise have to come from below, via the grassroots. “Otherwise it’s just vengeful, I suppose, and partisan.”

Populist authoritarianism. Pressure to be “ruthless” coming from below.

Habeus corpus, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva Conventions be damned.

We “wanted harsh measures.”

And that’s what we got.

Think about that.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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