One afternoon a couple of years ago Christopher Hitchens, Michael Totten and I had gone for a walk along Hamra street in West Beirut when Hitch spotted a signpost put up by a local fascist group
called the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The SSNP is a Hezbollah ally that does a lot of the Assad regime’s dirty work in Lebanon. Totten was in the middle of telling us about the
SSNP’s reputation for for brutality and its skill at making bombs when Hitch took out his pen and started to deface the sign. It was an action that typified Hitch’s commitment to his
political convictions — the same dauntless commitment that enabled him to risk excommunication by lifelong comrades on the left — and also the schoolboyish delight in making mischief
that was part of that intoxicating mix of qualities that made him the best company in the world. His response to what happened next that was even more revealing.
For within a few minutes leather-jacketed SSNP goons appeared from nowhere and attacked us, and Hitch got the worst of it. They knocked him down, and only stopped kicking and hitting him when their
leader gave a nod indicating ‘enough’. Totten and I picked him up and fled with him to a taxi. When Hitch talked and wrote about the incident afterwards, it was evident that he believed
that the beating hadn’t been worse was because of the interference of the Beirutis sitting in a nearby café. As Totten and I remembered it — and we, unlike Hitch, were still
standing while he was on the ground — they watched the violence impassively, the café being a hangout for upper middle-class Greek Orthodox supporters of the SSNP.
It made sense that Hitch, for all his hard-headedness about the need to fight tyrants and villains, chose to believe this. He was an idealist and an optimist with a romantic but profound faith in
progress. Unlike the so-called realists, and like some of the so-called neoconservatives with whom he made common cause, he believed that Arabs, like Kurds, Africans, Chinese, Indians and all the
other non-Western peoples of the world, were capable of democracy and deserved it just as much as Europeans and Americans.
Though bruised and bloodied by the attack, Hitch showed no a trace of self-pity. He knew he had in a sense asked for it, and the idea of being hurt or killed for his beliefs was, I think, one that
rather pleased him. Of course Totten and I had not signed up for such a fate. In any case we loved him too much, and were too upset by the blood on his face and shirt after the incident, to be
angry for long. Moreover for admirers already deeply proud to have him as a friend and mentor, there was something thrilling about sharing such an incident with our longtime hero, and to have seen
at first hand that his physical courage matched his courage on the page and in debate.
It is one reason why it is so very hard to accept that he has gone. Like many of his friends I half-believed that he would somehow beat his cancer — or at least be around a lot longer. After
all, his writing during this last year seemed as brilliant and morally astringent as ever, including superb pieces on Pakistan, and that last stunning essay for Vanity Fair about illness and death.
Knowing now that he wrote those pieces in conditions of physical misery and raging pain makes them all the more astonishing.
Now that he has gone the world feels like a darker and dumber place. He had no equal among public intellectuals working in the English language. And on a personal level, the knowledge that I will
never again hear that deep, dry voice live — never again be in the presence of mischevious smile — is even more painful than I expected. How I wish I had spent more evenings with him,
corresponded more. The times I did spend seem all the more precious, all the more a privilege. There is perhaps consolation for those who miss Hitch in that so much of the man is preserved in books
and on the internet, though today it is impossible to read him or watch him debate without lamenting a future where that unique voice is silent.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.