Christopher Hitchens is the finest English-language opinion writer in the world right now. That�s because he is (a) a polymath, (b) utterly passionate about all his opinions � from defending the Iraq war to denouncing snooty waiters, (c) an insanely hard worker, who pumps out a book a year, even as he writes lengthy book reviews for The Atlantic Monthly, and regular columns for Slate and daily newspapers, and (d) a strangely compelling stylist, despite (or perhaps because of) his fondness for esoteric, paragraph-length autobiographical digressions.
Now let us add to this list: (e) The man is fearless, and not just in the physical sense.
Earlier this year, Hitchens embarked on a first-hand investigation into waterboarding � a controversial post-9/11 CIA interrogation technique whose origins date back to the Spanish Inquisition, whereby criminal or terrorist suspects are lashed to a tilted board and then repeatedly dunked in water or smothered with water-soaked rags.
To this day, the question of whether waterboarding constitutes torture remains a live issue in the United States. Based on his experience on the board, Hitchens concludes unequivocally in the current issue of Vanity Fair: Yes, it�s torture.
I won�t attempt to summarize Hitchens� artful, self-deprecating account of his ordeal. Suffice it to say that even a few seconds of waterboarding proved so horrible that the author could not even remember the pre-agreed-upon code word that signalled his faux-torturers to relent. (Instead, they pulled a terrified Hitchens up because they could tell he was about to slip into unconsciousness.) Even the second time around � steeled for the experience � Hitchens faltered almost immediately.
To this day, the author writes, �If I do anything that makes me short of breath I find myself clawing at the air with a horrible sensation of smothering and claustrophobia � I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: �If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.� Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.�
Hitchens is a brave man: I doubt one journalist in 10 would be willing to endure a similar trauma. But what he did after getting waterboarded � writing about the experience for Vanity Fair � required just as much courage.
This is because Hitchens is normally thought of as a hawk�s hawk � a man who still stands four-square behind the Iraq war, and who tirelessly defends the United States against its critics. (Even in his Vanity Fair article, Hitchens properly points out that waterboarding is far milder than the horrors meted out as a matter of pride by jihadi terrorists, and so �any call to indict the United States for torture is therefore a lame and diseased attempt to arrive at a moral equivalence between those who defend civilization and those who exploit its freedoms to hollow it out� � a typically brilliant Hitchens flourish, all the more so because he is able to pull it off while going against the grain of his own thesis.) And much of his currency in the media (particularly the blogosphere), tribally divided as it is between left and right, is based on this status. Yet on this issue, as on so many others, he has gone his own way � dismissing the slogans of White House apologists because � well, because those slogans differ from the truth as he saw it through his own terrified, submerged eyes.
Shouldn�t we take it for granted that columnists will be true to their own heartfelt views? In theory, yes, of course. But in practice, columnists are dependent for their livelihood on their followings. And followings are fickle creatures: All it takes is one �off-message� column, and your pack of fans abandons you. That�s why so many successful columnists � I am thinking particularly of The New York Times� Paul Krugman and Frank Rich on the left, as well as Ann Coulter on the right � essentially write the same half-dozen columns over and over. They know what their fans like to eat, and they serve it up week after week � albeit with different garnishes and side-dishes.
Hitchens has never gone in for that. He champions Bush�s war on terrorism � and then denounces the torture used to fight it. He is a militantly anti-theistic, avowedly self-indulgent libertine, the very caricature of an elitist Democrat � yet he became a hero to Republicans by leading the charge against Bill Clinton�s prurience and mendacity. He is a ferocious enemy of bigotry (see his column on the recently departed Jesse Helms, whom the fantastically unsentimental Hitchens sent off as �a senile racist buffoon�). Yet he lays into Barack Obama with the same viciousness for surrounding himself with ignorant Afro-centrist pulpit-pounders.
Just about every pundit I know considers himself or herself a �free thinker.� Well, meet one of the few who actually is.
Hitchens� example is one that � as both an editor and writer � I would encourage others to follow. Doing so won�t help you get famous (unless you happen to also have Hitchens� spectacular level of talent). But it will ensure that what you do publish is something you can be proud of once the fleeting tide of e-mail plaudits from your following has washed in and out of your inbox.
This is something that sprang to mind in the aftermath of Hitchens� waterboarding article hitting the Internet. Responding to the author, a popular blogger who writes under the name Weasel put up banner text reading: �Torture is an experience so horrible that no one would consider trying it out simply for the purpose of writing a Vanity Fair article about what it�s like.� The slogan was then picked up by the Web site of mega-blogger Michelle Malkin � a Fox News-style on-message conservative well-known for, among other things, a book defending Japanese-American internment during the Second World War.
The logic here is faulty: Hitchens went in for waterboarding because he knew that he could end the experience at any time � and that he was not truly in the grasp of interrogators seeking to terrorize him into a confession. To cite his willingness to try the experience as evidence that waterboarding isn�t torture is therefore spurious. It is also a study in circular reasoning: By this logic, no interrogation technique can be shown to be torture by a journalistic investigator � since the very act of investigation is taken as proof against torture.
But of course, that�s what the dogmatists � on both sides � want, isn�t it? A total absence of fresh thought and inquiry. First-hand reporting, after all, only gets in the way of the party line. In the worst case scenario, you might even change your mind � and lose your following.
Sticking their heads in the sand won�t stop Malkin and Weasel from chalking up a ton of hits, of course. But as I�ve learned in this business, that�s no great feat. Preaching the Bible to the choir is easy. Being true to your own gospel: that�s a lot harder.
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