A most worthwhile human being and hero of mine, Christopher Hitchens, passed away yesterday.
I began reading Hitchens at a time when I was coming to grips with what it meant to be a humanist and an atheist. Amongst Wilde and Orwell, there was Hitchens with the unrelenting argument, impossibly researched and beautifully phrased.
Hitchens was always certain. He was certain of the truth (on Kissinger, on Mother Theresa, on Clinton, on Iraq, on God) that existed irrespective of political allegiances, religious morality, arrived at only through individual thought and an understanding of the facts. His conclusions were controversial, but one could not deny his facts. And he stood certain of his truths, knowing that a life spent struggling for them is what brings it meaning.
That certainty (whether I have agreed with him or not) has kept me in good company for the past thirteen years and his passing leaves me somewhat bereft for someone to carry that on.
There are many lessons to be learned from Hitchens (some of which he wrote down in Letters to a Young Contrarian), one quote, one lesson was burned into my mind, a fabulous quote from a debate over the potential trial of Henry Kissinger.
Faced with the question of whether the outcomes of a trial of Kissinger’s crimes would not just be a fait accompli, that his actions could be chalked up to the ordinary accepted wickedness of super powers, that personal accountability would be too difficult to establish, Hitchens responds:
But once you’ve established that money was paid to the murderers after the murder’s been done, than all the stuff in Isaacson and the Church Commission is sure to be nonsense and a euphemism. Because once that final bit is in place, all the A words kick in: aiding, abetting, accessory, accomplice. And that’s a murder case. And there’s no law, as far as I know, that allows someone to say, “Well, OK, I did have this guy who’d never done anything to me or to anyone else killed in another country. But I did it because the president told me to.”
If that can be entered as a defense, I would like to see it entered as a defense. But first somebody has to say you can’t do that. I would just as soon hear them say… very well then, let us have it said that that is legal as long as you are an American. Let’s have that clarified, too. What one cannot go on doing is living in this semi-opaque world of multiple standards, if standards they may be called.
This quote encapsulates for me what is worth struggling for. As humanists we understand innately what is justice, what is the right thing to do, and we often forget it’s there or there is a gap between this and the accepted wisdoms of the world, a dulling of the senses to injustice. Hitchens was about the abolishment of the gap and he did it on the grandest of scales.
It is my hope to take his lessons and fight for them at the scales of my own life.
Some links and reactions:
New York Times posts a selection of Op-Ed articles and letters written by Christopher Hitchens
Friend Ian McEwan writes about his last days with Hitchens (NY Times)
Stephen Fry offers a few words
Christopher Buckley writes about their enduring friendship in the New Yorker