This week, in 2011, that we lost one of our most perceptive, often profound, occasionally obdurate, but always entertaining commentators. Christopher Hitchens died in Houston, Texas, in the country he had made his home and in the state that was perhaps the most apt terminus for his political adventure. He had finally become an American citizen in 2007 for reasons he tried to explain in The Atlantic in 2005 whilst still waiting to be officially adopted by his country of choice:
I had lived in the nation’s capital for many years, and never particularly liked it. But when it was exposed to attack, and looked and felt so goddamn vulnerable, I fused myself with it. I know now that no solvent can ever unglue that bond. And yes, before you ask, I could easily name Arabs, Iranians, Greeks, Mexicans, and others who felt precisely as I did, and who communicated it almost wordlessly. I tried my hardest in 2001 to express it in words all the same. The best I could do was to say that in America your internationalism can and should be your patriotism. I still rather like the clumsiness of what I said. In finishing my Jefferson book I concluded more sententiously that the American Revolution is the only revolution that still resonates.
That he made America his home was no surprise. He was a writer whose gifts were simply too energetic for Britain’s anti-intellectual backwaters. That he decided to formalise that relationship as a response to 9/11 sets it into the context of his broader development as a political writer. The erstwhile Marxist had become one of the most vocal supporters of George W. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’. He earned the opprobrium of the Left’s best and worst, many of whom could not forgive his betrayal. He wrote in support of the troops whilst other critics, supposedly self-confessed patriots too, criticized everything from America’s right to respond, the nature of that response, and the length of that response as the years began to stretch to a decade and more.
Hitchens always seemed to relish debate but he debated best when his opponents were at his level or better. In the 2009 documentary, Collusion, we see him tour American cities, debating religion with evangelical theologian Pastor Douglas Wilson. It is unusual to see Hitchens struggle throughout. Normally the alpha male in any contest of wits, Hitchens takes a humbler role as it becomes obvious that his own conspicuous scriptural learning is second to that of Wilson, who even matches him quote for quote when it came to proving their love for P.G. Wodehouse. Theism was always an adjunct to Hitchens’ main interests, so perhaps it’s expected that in matters of scripture he should not know or have been able to anticipate every turn of Pastor Wilson’s argument. Yet it is a reminder that even the best arguments have equally strong counter arguments. Rarely is it possible to write something that everybody would agree about. Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that it is a real struggle to find a single issue that is one sided…
And then you hear about the injustices surrounding the Zadroga Act in the United States. Then you wonder how Americans could allow themselves to be shamed so deeply by politicians so profoundly wrong. I wonder what Hitchens would have said about a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, who seems to care so little for the people that it would let its heroes die in protracted penury and pain.
The act takes its name from Police Officer James Zadroga who worked to rescue survivors in the rubble of 9/11. He later died of respiratory disease caused by his exposure to toxic chemicals in and around Ground Zero. The Act, whose proper title is the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, was enacted by President Obama in 2011 and cost $4.2 billion to provide testing and health care for both responders and survivors. The bill expired in 2015 and the money will shortly run out.
Congress has yet to pass a bill to provide permanent funding for the remaining responders and victims of 9/11. It is thought that it might do so in the next two weeks. Such money would, of course, give help where it is both needed and deserved. Yet it provides little solace for anybody whose faith in America has been damaged by the tale of this nasty little insult. What can we say about a country when such an act only passes into law because of the advocacy of a celebrity; in this case, Jon Stewart, former host of The Daily Show? Stewart has forced the story into the headlines and without his shaming the congressmen blocking the bill, the issue would have faded to a stain-shaped memory up there on Capitol Hill.
If the killers who flew jet liners into the Twin Towers continued to kill Americans to this day, the American government would act and act decisively. It is the type of tooth-grinding movie cliche which Americans love so much. It’s the stuff of Bruce Willis hanging from the edge of his own ability to act. You don’t do that in my city. Get out of my town. America looks after our own. America goes to great lengths to inflict harm on anybody who dares attack their citizens at home or overseas. One American life lost in a terrorist incident usually means many non-American lives lost, not all of them guilty lives, in air strikes on some remote desert mud hole.
The 9/11 hijackers have been enduring ‘paradise’ for so long now that they will have grown bored of their 72 virgins and their own ‘eternal erections‘ (though how priapism without end might be considered a perk of the job is one of the least discussed oddities of jihadist theology). Yet they do continue to kill Americans to this day. They do it through the lethal cocktail of dust, gas, and particulates created in the collapse of the World Trade Towers. The jihadists’ proxies invaded the bodies of honourable men and women fourteen years ago and have been destroying them from the inside ever since. And America’s politicians apparently don’t seem to understand how this is the worst form of terrorism there is. The worst form of dying too.
Hitchens himself knew about the prolonged agony of a body being destroyed from within. Though he struggled to explain his bond with America, I suspect he would not struggle to explain the issue of Zadroga. The grizzled congressmen beneath their spin-around toupees and porceline smiles are too often a poison in the body of American politics. Their partisanship is the toxicity that starves the red blood cells that keep the brain fed with oxygen. Congressmen obsessed by the gleam of lobbyists and their own role in the grander plans of blocking government business become glassy eyed and mesmerized, incapable of seeing the objects of real value. They might eventually do the right thing but I cannot help think that part of the American promise withered while they waited. The nation founded on an ideal has again foundered on rank stupidity. I also cannot help think how much we miss The Hitch. He would have known what to say.