In February 2009, Christopher Hitchens got into a fight with fascists in Beirut. Visiting the country as part of a delegation of foreign journalists hosted by Lebanon’s pro-democracy March 14 movement, Hitchens was walking through the Hamra district with two colleagues when he saw a plaque commemorating a martyr from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The organization’s symbol is a variation on the swastika, the sight of which prompted Hitchens to pull out a pen and deface the placard. Suddenly a gang of SSNP thugs materialized and set upon Hitchens and the others, who were barely able to make their safe escape in a passing taxi.
“Had I really understood what I was doing on my little anti-swastika excursion,” Hitchens writes in his memoir, Hitch-22, “I would not have done it.” On the same street corner the SSNP had previously beaten a local journalist so badly that he was hospitalized for months. Worse, in May 2008 the SSNP had terrorized the neighborhood, killing some of its residents, when its ally Hezbollah attempted a coup d’état. Nonetheless, Hitchens’s considered second-thought beggars belief: He would have scribbled an expletive on that plaque even if the only writing utensil at hand had been his own fingernail. Indeed, one way to understand his career is as an anti-swastika world tour, which has now come to an end.
Hitchens wore his bruises from that beating with aplomb, and he blushed when his hosts, including the country’s soon-to-be, and now former, prime minister, Saad Hariri, teased him. Hitchens understood they were paying him a compliment: Your enemies are ours, too. Walid Jumblatt, at the time a March 14 figure, was an old friend of Hitchens, but it was not the SSNP who nearly stood in the way of their reunion.
The delegation was late leaving Beirut, and one of Jumblatt’s men explained that to reach the Druze chieftain’s mountaintop mansion in time, a journey that normally required an hour along a steep winding road with blind spots throughout would have to be accomplished in half that time. Hitchens rode shotgun and cursed nonstop for 30 minutes.
If the driver knew the roads and the region, as Jumblatt’s aide asserted, it is not clear how much English he knew. His cartoon-sized hands could’ve choked the life out of the journalist, but instead he smiled at every epithet from Hitchens. “It’s not funny,” Hitchens insisted, even as the sight of him sliding from side to side as his face turned pale prompted his colleagues’ laughter. Hitchens was, of course, right: to fall off the side of a mountain rushing to lunch would not be funny, not even to one’s enemies, but as stupid a death as there is.
Hitchens’s death last week was of a different order altogether. He did not die in the streets alongside his comrades fighting fascists. He succumbed to cancer in a hospital surrounded by his family. And death didn’t catch him by violent surprise. He knew it was coming for a year and a half, and he wrote and spoke about it with courage and wit. He was a writer whose life was shaped by the literature of action, and his dying over the last 18 months was also an action, almost classical in its intent, completing a life in which allies and adversaries, causes and fights, were chosen wisely.