October 6, 2007

One small Hitch

Andrew Sullivan directs our attention to a piece by Christopher Hitchens about his experience meeting the family of a young soldier who recently died in Iraq, having been inspired to enlist in part by Hitchens. Hitchens' article is honest and moving, and he is obviously stricken by his role in the death of Mark Jennings Daily, by all accounts a remarkable man from a remarkable family. But I was struck by Hitchens's response when he first read in the LA Times that "writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens on the moral case for war deeply influenced" Daily to go to Iraq.

"I don't exaggerate by much when I say that I froze. I certainly felt a very deep pang of cold dismay. I had just returned from a visit to Iraq with my own son (who is 23, as was young Mr. Daily) and had found myself in a deeply pessimistic frame of mind about the war. Was it possible that I had helped persuade someone I had never met to place himself in the path of an I.E.D.?" (emphasis mine.)

When I read this, I froze. Could it be true that this possibility had never occurred to Hitchens before? He is a columnist and an opinion-writer; persuading people he has never met is his trade. By arguing forcefully in prominent venues for the war in Iraq, surely he must have realized that his words could have at least two potential consequences. One, his forceful arguments might influence the thinking of the policymakers and opinion-shapers whose support is vital for the launch of any war--and war will almost certainly lead to the deaths of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers. Two, an idealistic person might read Hitchens' writing and be so inspired by its moral arguments that he decides to participate in the struggle for democracy in the Middle East. Perhaps opinion writers tend not to consider that their words might have the direct impact of the latter example, and are more comfortable with exerting their influence at the safe remove offered by the former. The consequences, however, are ultimately the same.