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Christopher Hitchens on Mother Teresa, and the three wars in Iraq, and Iran’s interference.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007
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HH: We begin as we do on Wednesdays when we are lucky with Christopher Hitchens. He’s of course a columnist for Vanity Fair, he’s author most recently of god Is Not Great, long interviews on this program about that book, and two columns we’ve got to cover, Christopher. Welcome back, good to have you on the program.

CH: Very nice of you to have me back.

HH: The first one is Hitchens’ take on Mother Teresa, the nun’s leading critic argues that her crisis of faith, according to this Newsweek column, revealed in newly published letters was brought on by a crushing unreasonableness of the Roman Catholic faith. Now it’s only fair, Christopher Hitchens, you are a hostile witness, and I do mean literally.

CH: Oh, yes. Well, I was invited by the Vatican to testify against her beatification and canonization, and did so testify, and have written a book critical of her extremist and fundamentalist stand, and of the compromises she made with worldly powers.

HH: Now in today’s column, the story that you’ve written, you’re talking about a book that has just been published that includes all of her letters to her spiritual directors. Now I’m quoting from Time Magazine here, two very different Catholics predict the book will be a landmark. The chairman of the theology department at Ave Maria University, the Reverend Matthew Lamb thinks it will eventually rank with St. Augustine’s confessions, and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain as an autobiography of spiritual assent. And then there’s a doubting Thomas on this one as well. What do you make of these letters?

CH: Well, I think Father Lamb perhaps no choice to say that, but Mother Teresa’s greatest admirer wouldn’t put her in that intellectual class with Augustine or even Aquinas. What the letters show, to be blunt about it, for the last fifty years of her life, she in effect had no faith. And the letters are very moving, in a sense, and very impressive, touching, because they show someone who’s striving very hard, as hard as a person could to believe, and failing to do it. And it seems to me making up for this failure, this appalling disappointment by an excessive zeal, hysterical overwork, ostentatious poverty, self-mortification, preaching a very, very fanatical and dogmatic version of the Catholic Church’s dogma. And so it’s extremely suggestive, because this poor woman who’s suffering very greatly as the letters to her confessors show, was continuously exploited by a Church which knew that she brought it good publicity, but which also knew, privately, that she didn’t in fact share the faith they were trying to recruit people to.

HH: Now this is where I quarrel with you, because the dark night of the soul is a time honored tradition, some lasting decades and decades, and…as I haven’t read the book yet, I’ve just read some of the reviews, she never lost her faith, and she’s quick to say that. She just didn’t experience God’s presence. There’s a huge difference, isn’t there, Christopher Hitchens?

CH: Well, no. She at one point says, it’s in my piece that’s currently on the Newsweek website if you want to have a look, that she really can’t be sure there’s a God at all, or that there’s any such person as Jesus. She feels she oughtn’t even to be thinking these terrible thoughts. She blames herself even for thinking it. But as the whole human experience demonstrates, it’s very difficult to be a little bit heretical, if you take one brick out of the structure, it starts to crumble, and that’s what happened, in my judgment, to her. It’s not at all an unusual thing.

HH: Well, we’ll put that aside. I’ll ask people to go read your piece at Newsweek, because I want to get to Iraq, upon which we have much greater agreement than we do on matters of faith. Yesterday, I was debating with Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett, the author of The Pentagon’s New Map, about what ought to be done. And he cited your Slate article, Which Iraq War Do You Want To End, approvingly. But then he argued for a rather precipitous drawdown in any American or Coalition forces attempting to keep the sectarian violence to a minimum. Do you agree that that is a good position, and let whatever happen fall out quickly, Christopher Hitchens?

CH: Well, no, I don’t. Would it be of any help if I quickly summarized what I meant by the wars rather than war?

HH: Please.

CH: Well, I say in my Slate piece, and I say whenever I get the chance, that there are at least three combats going on in Mesopotamia. One involves our struggle to repress and isolate and defeat the forces of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, AQM, the vile organization led by the late Mr. Zarqawi, which is by all reports, and I really do interrogate these reports very skeptically, going really pretty well. It seems as that these people have been not just militarily outdone, but also politically and socially very badly discredited. So it’s a moral victory as well as a military one.

HH: That’s what General Simmons told me this morning. We’ll get to that after the break.

CH: It’s a tremendous thing that people should be saying more about, that you know, we may have beaten the forces of bin Ladenism in a very important, keystone Arab and Muslim and actually now add Kurdish state, because the second war is, in my opinion, the one to defend the gains made by the free people of Northern Iraq, in the two provinces that are governed by the Kurdish regional government, where there really is at least a good simulacrum of a secular and democratic and open and free market society that’s by any standards in the region, exemplary. We cannot even contemplate abandoning these extraordinarily brave people who were doing our fighting for us against Saddam Hussein for a long time. That seems to me another point that needs to be made without equivocation. The muddy bit is the one that gets the most attention. Are we, by trying to pacify the differences between Sunni and Shia, being spun or exploited in any ways by sectarian politicians? And I’m afraid, I think, that the Maliki government has been trying to pick and choose as to whether it accepts American support or not, and is trying to borrow our armed forces for its own reasons. And we have every right to be extremely reserved about that, and rather strict with Mr. Maliki on that point. We can’t have our people defending, for example, a sectarian police force that is used in Baghdad by Shia militias under the cover of a law and order uniform to do ethnic cleansing. That’s unconscionable from every point of view.

HH: I agree with that, but do you believe that the result of that manipulation ought to be that we abandon the effort, or that we increase the pressure?

CH: Oh, I think increase, very much increase the pressure, and simply say openly what our Constitution more or less obliges us to say. I mean, taxpayer’s money of the United States can’t be used for the establishment of religion, either in this country or anywhere else, and we’re not there to empower a Shia theocracy. And we’ve no choice but to say that.

HH: Actually, we do, that’s an incorrect Constitutional interpretation. But…

CH: I don’t think so.

HH: I know, we disagree. I want to get to the key, though, of Dr. Barnett’s argument, which is repeated a lot, which is only a diplomatic solution will work, and we’ve got to force Iran to come bargain with us and with the Saudis, who are representing the Sunni fundamentalist…

CH: Yes.

HH: Do you see any evidence that Iran wants to bargain with us on that kind of a grand scale to settle our differences and get about the partitioning of power in the Middle East?

CH: No, I see no such evidence. I mean, I think that all the evidence is that the Iranian mullahs, for some insane reason of their own, hugely overestimating, I think, their own strength in a confrontation, are looking for a fight on several fronts, not just in Iraq, but in Lebanon, where they’ve been trying to detonate again a fragile but very defensible and very honorable non-sectarian government, in Syria, where they’re the insurance of the only remaining and very weak and discredited Baathist dictatorship, on the international front by sending death squads to commit acts of terrorism in foreign cities as far away as Argentina, and London, and of course, in the very grand overarching scheme of things, at the UN and at the European Union, not minding being caught flagrantly lying about every agreement they’ve ever signed on nuclear matters, quite extraordinary. They seem to be looking for a fight.

HH: President Sarkozy said we are rapidly approaching, this week, either an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran. Do you agree with his assessment?

CH: Well, I must say I think that the logic of that is very, very hard to impeach. Yes, we’ve either got to say all right, we give it up, we give it up all over our attempts to negotiate with them, to bribe them, to give them inducements, to allow in proper inspections, to stop lying and cheating, that all of that, the whole wage of international law, this time run by the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Authority, not by the Defense Department or the CIA, by the way, in case that counts, that all of that’s worthless, that we simply allow an outlaw regime to acquire apocalyptic weapons when it displays a messianic ideology, an ideology of ultimate destruction, not just of Israel, but the whole world. Its leaders claim to believe that their messiah’s return is imminent. People like that shouldn’t have apocalyptic weaponry.

HH: Would any attempt to do that, just to throw in the towel, yield any result appreciably different than what we got in ’37, ’38 and ’39, when we tried it with a different fascist regime? Would they be bought off, Christopher Hitchens?

CH: No, it doesn’t seem to me that they do. I mean, look, these are people who have publicly, with really incredibly little protest, arrested four or five senior American citizens of Iranian descent, returning peacefully to their own country to have discussions, arrested them, framed them up, tortured them, forced confessions out of them on television, behaved in the most barbaric manner, with no cost. The Canadian-Iranian journalist, recently a woman was beaten to death in prison, and the Canadian government’s appeals to have the head of the Iranian Secret Police arrested when he traveled were met with no response at all. It’s outrageous that we don’t band together against this international gangster regime.

HH: Well, we agree on Iran, we disagree about Mother Teresa. But I’m always thankful that you come, Christopher Hitchens. Both pieces available online, one at Slate, one at Newsweek.

End of interview.

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