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The world according to Hitch

"The world according to Hitch" Continued...

Issue: "Houses divided," June 3, 2006

Turning back clocks doesn't interest Mr. Hitchens, who began his political life as a member of the British Labor Party and joined a Marxist faction even before arriving at Oxford to push revolution in the turmoil of 1968. "The promises of the '60s came true in 1989-in exactly the way we would not have imagined," he notes. The Cold War and leftist politics left him drained, he says, by the mid-'70s, and by the fall of the Berlin Wall he was ready for something "kind of banal, like how to bring together a market economy and democratic society."

When the Cold War ended, he wanted to go back to writing about literature, not dreaming that the so-called peace dividend, by his calculation, was to last "only about 150 days." When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and Slobodan Milosevic tried to annex all of Yugoslavia into a greater Serbia, Mr. Hitchens says, "I found myself in Sarajevo. And I found myself in northern Iraq in Kurdistan. Seeing people who'd been gassed, people who were still dying from Saddam's brutality . . . some I met were old comrades, but it was a pretty plain new enemy we had."

The reality that totalitarian dictatorships like those in Iraq and Serbia could continue into the post--Cold War era hit him hard. "You may think you can give up politics but you can't, it won't give you up. Politics will come and find you." And the trials, at the same time, of his close friend, author Salman Rushdie, made him aware of the creeping threat of jihadism.

Feb. 14, 1989, as Mr. Hitchens describes it, was a day that changed his life and moved him further from the leftist camp. That was the day Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran issued his now infamous fatwa against Mr. Rushdie for his depiction of Muhammad in his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. The ayatollah's edict included a $3 million bounty and ordered Mr. Rushdie's execution. It was only partially rescinded in 1998.

"It wouldn't have made any difference if he wasn't a friend, because here is the religious dictator of a foreign state offering money in his own name for the murder of a writer of fiction, who is not even an Iranian living in exile. This is the most frontal assault on all the values of free expression that make my life possible and my living possible."

Mr. Rushdie spent nearly a decade in hiding, and spent part of that time living with Mr. Hitchens in his Washington apartment. The author and his round-the-clock armed security holed up with Mr. Hitchens, his wife, and a new baby until New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd "annoyingly published" Mr. Rushdie's location, and he again had to take flight.

Mr. Hitchens soon after began receiving calls from counterterrorism officers at the State Department. They'd picked up intelligence from Tehran suggesting Mr. Hitchens' life, too, was in danger. He was encouraged to move and change his phone number, particularly after arranging a meeting between Mr. Rushdie and then-President Bill Clinton in late 1993. Mr. Clinton refused to have his picture taken with Mr. Rushdie, and later described it as "a surprise meeting" -one of many episodes prompting Mr. Hitchens to write a book about the Clintons in 1999, No One Left to Lie To.

Mr. Hitchens says of that time: "There was this other thing, a permanent silhouette below the horizon. I could feel the shadow of it but I couldn't measure it very well: Islamic totalitarianism."

But the British journalist didn't move and the threats haven't stopped. "It's a depressing week when I don't get them," he says. "No bravado here. I think of it as a compliment, and it's the least I can do considering the risks other people take. It's not guarding a polling station in Anbar Province in the hot sun. I'm doing what I think is the civic minimum. Who in the United States would not be willing to say, 'I wouldn't mind these people hating me personally?'"

He gets plenty of ongoing hate from the left as well. After he called Michigan history professor Juan Cole "a minor nuisance on the fringes of the academic Muslim apologist community," Mr. Cole last month accused him of theft. Mr. Cole's statements at issue ("I object to the characterization of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as having 'threatened to wipe Israel off the map'"), he said, were lifted from a closed online chat. Before it was over leftist blogs were so full of venom toward Mr. Hitchens, calling him a thief and "that British drunk," that blog-father Andrew Sullivan stepped in to mediate, mostly on Mr. Hitchens' side. Mr. Hitchens simply took his pack of Rothmans and his unapologetic taste for Johnnie Walker double blacks to the next speaking engagement. These days he is talking mostly about Iran and Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose statements he describes as "principally the ravings of an unwashed taxi driver."

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