Gasbag for a Punching Bag


What else could one say, except: ha-ha-ha! (Also check out this interesting report on Hitchens’s speech at the AUB)

As a professional provocateur and vocal supporter of the war in Iraq, Christopher Hitchens has been engaged in countless verbal punch-ups with his ideological opponents, most of them conducted from the safety of a TV studio.

However, when the controversial author, journalist and broadcaster defaced a political poster on a visit to Beirut last week, he found himself at the wrong end of a bruising encounter that has left him walking with a limp and nursing cuts and bruises.

Hitchens had been drinking on Beirut’s main boulevard, Hamra Street, on Saturday afternoon with two other western journalists after attending a rally to commemorate the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. They spotted a poster for the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a far-right group whose logo bears an uncanny resemblance to the Nazi swastika, and Hitchens decided to act.

“They would be better off calling themselves the Syrian National Socialist party, and that’s what they are”, he said, speaking to today after arriving in the UK by plane. “I couldn’t tear it down but I got my marker out and wrote on it, effectively telling them to ‘fuck off’.”

Hitchens’ political statement was witnessed by a group of SSNP activists, who have a strong presence in Beirut. “With amazing speed, in broad daylight on this fashionable street, these guys appeared from nowhere, grabbed me by the collar and said: ‘You’re coming with us’. I said: ‘No I’m not’. They kept on coming. About six or seven at first with more on the way,” he said.

He described how he was knocked to the floor, ended up with his shirt covered with blood after he cut his arm in the fall, and “skinned” two fingers on one hand. Hitchens added that was walking with a limp for several days after. “They were after me because I was the one who had defaced the poster,” he said.

After scrambling to his feet and “picking up my glasses and my notebook”, Hitchens and his companions flagged down a taxi, but a member of the gang who had assailed him jumped in and they climbed back out on to the street, escaping to the safety of a busy coffee shop. A crowd confronted their assailants and the three men managed to escape.

The journalists then caught another taxi to a waterfront hotel “to throw them off the scent in case we were followed”, although not before Hitchens had “taken a punch to the face through the car window”. They returned to their own hotel later that afternoon.

Hitchens said he had been shaken by the attack. “I’ve just got off a flight. What shook me is how nearly it could have got fantastically nasty. We could have been hurt or taken away. These militias have their own private dungeons. I wouldn’t fancy spending time in one of those.”

He stayed on in Beirut to deliver a scheduled talk at the University of American in Lebanon yesterday evening, where he was confronted by another group of SSNP members. “By that time they had worked out who I was and where I was going to be,” he said. “So I took along some very nice comrades from the Popular Socialist Party to sit near me. [The rival activists] were outnumbered.”

Hitchens added that his hosts had offered to take him to hospital but he had refused. “I’m too old to take chances. If you get kicked in the head or the stomach you should get yourself checked out but I didn’t get a blow to my head or anything.”

He is recovering in London today before flying back to his Washington home tomorrow and insists he is bloodied but unbowed. “It was a scrape. It wasn’t ‘honours even’ but it wasn’t a rout.”

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

11 thoughts on “Gasbag for a Punching Bag”

  1. The man is so very, very obnoxious, but I can’t help but love him after he had himself waterboarded and allowed the video of himself utterly unmanned to be posted to the web. For such a cocky fuck, that was an incredibly selfless act. Some people sneer and say it was a publicity stunt, but I don’t think they saw the raw footage… or maybe they’d be waterboarders when pressed….

    Anyway, Galloway fan that I am, that “stunt” won Hitchens an ocean of patience from me.

  2. The idea of Hitchens the archetypal alcohol-propelled Grub Street hack ending his days in a Black and Decker basement in Beirut is frankly……..fucking hilarious!

    Lucky for him his Israeli gate-crasher friends weren’t in town in which case Hitchens could have suffered an Evil Cradling of Keenan/Macarthyite proportions.

    Imagine his Grub Street pals writing about Anti-Semitism On A Street in Beirut!

    Mind you his captors would have one hell of a job persuading anyone to come looking for him.

    And which fucker in their right mind would pay the ransom?

  3. Some people sneer and say it was a publicity stunt…that “stunt” won Hitchens an ocean of patience from me.

    It was indeed a publicity stunt (he wasn’t even the first, one reporter from Fox had already done this) and even that appeared not to have tortured the love of torture out of him. His message afterwards: Yes, waterboarding is torture, but these are exceptional circumstances so it needs to be used. So presumably he had previously had doubts, but after experiencing it himself, he elevated himself to the position of Dershowitz and declared that torture under certain circumstances in justified!

  4. That was the FOX guy, not Hitchens.

    Even if one cedes that Hitchens went in with his native smartass, testosterone-addled, and self-aggrandizing attitude, which neither of us can assert with perfect certitude, it doesn’t appear to have been his idea, but he went for it, and got it, in the easiest, least violent and terrifying way, on tape. It is far more terrifying and rough for prisoners.

    After they did this to him, though I’m not finding the raw footage on YouTube now, just the one cut for Vanity Fair which cuts off most of the after stuff, he was very visibly shaken badly. At the time anyway, this was right out there for the world to see, and there wasn’t a trace of smartass on him in those moments. [Perhaps the uncut version is still up on VF. I don’t know.] He was quaky and red with water from out of his sinuses all down the front of his shirt and couldn’t make much of a discernible response to questions about how he was. Then he went on to admit in the tape later that he gets panicky when he’s out of breath and has nightmares that he’s smothering, waking up struggling to get the covers away from his face, since the little demonstration. Christopher Hitchens did that… not, say, Dennis Kucinich.

    Mr. Tough Obnoxious Bluster, very nakedly did and showed himself unmanned and traumatized, admitted the kind of weakness the Hitchens we all think we know so well wasn’t completely in charge anymore.

    And why?

    To help try to stop us from torturing people.

    I also think everybody forgets that Hitchens spent a lot of time with various Iraqi dissident leaders back in the nineties, became close with them, helped facilitate the heads-up to us about a coup attempt — which we had been assuring them we would back — and someone in the Clinton administration, mole or not mole, WARNED SADDAM. Hitchens’ friends who had attempted this brave thing were taken and tortured and murdered.

    It should be noted that that is when his outrageous drunkenness and disregard for hygiene started reaching the public eye.

    So. He’s going to have an attitude, big time, from that. Hard to be reasonable when men you befriended and encouraged get that for your efforts. Which might explain why the stubborn old maniac lost his liberal peacenik street cred and went nuts backing the invasion. All the time before the betrayal, meeting in secret places to avoid various forms of savagery also would have had that impact on him.

    I’m very angry at him for being a booster for the invasion of Iraq, but I think I really do understand what drove that, and it is akin to his courage in the effort against torture. He is that fierce and maniacal behind a fundamental decency.

    It also shows behind his very public attack on religion. His endless engagements to flog the book were filled with his acerbic statements against the inhumanity of certain Biblical ideas.

    Still, he’d been so obnoxious about everything, even gratuitously writing a jealous and snarky hit piece on JFK, that I’d lost patience with him, called him a gasbag, as you do here, but the effort against torture made me go back and reassess everything. Decency, good will, real humanity underlie his nasty druken facade. He’s done what millions of too sensitive testosterone victims have done before him; to wit: drowned it in booze and tough talk.

  5. Don’t know about Fox guy. I read Hitchens, and he was defending the use of waterboarding even after pulling his stunt. And I’m not sure the word ‘dissident’ quite describes Jalal Talabani, the man who even in mid-90s was willing to join forces with Saddam Hussein in order to defeat his regional rivals. Most of Hitchens’s stories about the middle east are made up. (He once claimed having interviewed Abu Nidal).

  6. If you get a minute, I’d appreciate a link to Hitchens defending torture.

    I was speaking of guys planning a coup who got ratted out by us instead of helped, not anyone involved in teaming up with Saddam. Unfortunately it was from a piece back in the nineties that I read in VF when it was published and can’t find it now online. I certainly don’t remember the names of the guys, but it made a big impression on me. I flipped. I believe one of the men who got ratted out was a General, but that is through the haze of over ten years looking back. Mayhap Hitchens made it all up and mayhap you just hate his ass and want to toss off every nasty thing you ever heard about him or guessed about him.

    I don’t see how you can help bring about peace and humanitarianism when you are this much of a hardass, m. Maybe you’re only irked about the puffings of a silly and deluded woman… “living in a bubble”… but I don’t think it would hurt you to consider some of this stuff more deeply, more compassionately… even if you are too young for that noise, it’s truly wise to learn to do this before the world has beaten the living crap out of you.


    As regards his reporting on Iraq, Hitchen’s model of ‘socialist revolutionary’ is the aforementioned Talabani, to whom he dedicates his recent book on Tom Paine (most of which he incidentally plagiarized)

    Most of his reporting on Iraq is pilfered from Patrick & Andrew Cockburn’s “Out of the Ashes”. And the only people who were betrayed and tortured by SH’s men were INC agent provocateurs, who had tried to drag US into a confrontation with Iraq by launching an ill-conceived insurgency. Wiser heads prevailed, and US refused to intervene on INC’s behalf. That I presume is what CH refers to as the ‘betrayal’.

  8. Okay, Your first link: Otterman outrageously took Hitchens out of context. OUTRAGEOUSLY. Whatever Otterman says, Hitchens ended his piece with:

    Which returns us to my starting point, about the distinction between training for something and training to resist it. One used to be told—and surely with truth—that the lethal fanatics of al-Qaeda were schooled to lie, and instructed to claim that they had been tortured and maltreated whether they had been tortured and maltreated or not. Did we notice what a frontier we had crossed when we admitted and even proclaimed that their stories might in fact be true? I had only a very slight encounter on that frontier, but I still wish that my experience were the only way in which the words “waterboard” and “American” could be mentioned in the same (gasping and sobbing) breath.

    Nothing remotely unclear about that. Not remotely.

    As to his penchant for plagiarism, your second link would indicate he was at least using someone else’s work as his guide for part or parts of his Paine biography anyway…. I’m speculating it would have been as part of his studying up for his citizenship exam.

    As to pilfering from Patrick & Andrew Cockburn, I can’t say because I haven’t read their book, and I don’t know how to get the piece to which I refer unless maybe someone can come up with it on Nexis… or I can find out if someone who subscribes can get into the VF archives for it.

    I have to say it would be COMPLETELY outrageous of him to have written that very long piece on all his meetings with dissidents and rival factions and exiles, and all the fear it entailed, then to describe the honorable general and compatriots who conspired to end the reign of torture and American sanctions. If that was Patrick and Andrew doing all that and he had the temerity to bill VF for it and just plagiarize the story, he ought to be hooted out of publishing forever… maybe jailed.

    Why, I wonder, haven’t the Cockburn brothers sued his pants off him? Or their publisher?

    There’s a possibility, maybe, albeit remote, that the Cockburns wrote the article and time has turned them into Hitchens in my fevered brain, but it’s hardly believable he’d have plagiarized that story, that piece. It was NOT referring to an insurgency. It was referring to taking out Saddam when he was going to be moving from Point A to Point B, either physically detaining him or killing him. And no one who read it would come away calling it anything short of “betrayal”.

    Hitchens deserves rough treatment because he doles it out, but becoming hateful behind it is a mistake. He very, very thoroughly denounced torture, notwithstanding his feeling of solidarity with the SERE people’s notion of no moral equivalence between torturers from each side. He made that abundantly, abundantly, abundantly clear.

  9. You are right about the Guardian article. I hadn’t read Hitchens’s own (I stopped reading Hitchens the day since he attacked his former friend Edward Said while he was on his death bed, and again in his obituary), and the paragraph you cite is pretty unequivocal.

    However, that puts him in no better a company in that of people such as those who cried ‘bad apples’ when they saw the Abu Ghrabi abuses. Wars and Occupation always engender atrocities and torture – and Hitchens enthusiastically supported the warparty. Jean Paul-Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had long ridicule this tendency which was also common to the French left of taking ‘principled’ stances of specific abuses while supporting the occupation during the Algerian war of independence. Said de beauvoir:

    “The words were the same stale cliches: ever since torture had been used in Algeria there had always been the same words, the same expression of indignation, the same signatures to public protests, the same promises. This automatic routine had not abolished one set of electrodes or water-hoses; nor had it in any remotely effective way curbed the power of those who used them. To protest in the name of morality against ‘excesses’ or ‘abuses’ is an error which hints at active complicity. There are no ‘abuses’ or ‘excesses’ here, simply an all-pervasive system“.

  10. Yes, the intertubes has made it possible for people to become acquainted with stuff that’s always been going on. I had been 100% antiwar since learning of it in childhood, and I remain outraged that we have started so many of them, and so few of them for good enough reasons [none].

    War in defense of life is not war; it is defense of life. Would that it could ever be purely that in this fucked up and greed run world! And it’s not always just the defense that constitutes defense of life. It can be attack too. Leaders, the military and interested others use the truth of this to rally people to engage in their lies. This doesn’t make the basis wrong; it makes the liars wrong… the ones life should be defended from.

    And since torture doesn’t work, torture is therefore never in defense of life, no matter what excuse is given for it, or by whom.

    It is the fundamental intent upon which this hinges… and so even when it is as evil as our invasion of Iraq, the troops think they are going to defend life. That’s why I have so much trouble with the so-called pacifists who revile the military. I am frustrated that they are duped, hypnotized, ignorant and can’t see they are really an army for huge corporate interests, and feel compassion for them when they get home and begin to get the real picture… find out their gorgeous selflessness was in service of no such thing.

    So I’m plenty mad at Hitchens, who was once one of our best, back before he let his talent and success be lapped up by his entrance into elite circles. The booze has been a big part of his decline, his slide from the interest in truth and into the lowly interest in mere cleverness. I can see him being hurt and appalled by the ignorance and ineptitude of almost everyone around him, and taking refuge in drunken snobbery… unworthy as that is. I lament that he has been, obviously, unable to rise above a bunch of earthier concerns to do as good a job as he is yet capable of.

    I am grateful I can still see the evidence of his youthful dedication to truth above all the bullshit, rare as it’s becoming, big a disappointment as he has been. Truly, under all the cynicism of his coping mechanisms and adopted views, we can yet catch glimpses of the fundamental decency, and the piece he wrote in VF — Believe Me, It’s Torture — was a clear shot at it. I was very proud of him for overcoming all the shit he’s heaped on his essential self to get that out.

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