It seems a fantastical encounter now: a man who’d just shoveled every female in what was supposedly the most modernized of Middle Eastern nations back into “medieval rags” versus the archetype of the ball-busting Western career woman. The phrase personality interviewer is grossly devalued these days: look at Mike Wallace’s cringe-making oleaginous encounter with today’s Iranian must-get, President Ahmadinejad. Indeed, Wallace seems to have found Ahmadinejad even more attractive (“very smart, savvy, self-assured, good-looking in a strange way”) than Fallaci found Khomeini. She was “the greatest political interviewer of modern times” (Rolling Stone), and yet, unlike so many of the bland big shots jetting from foreign ministry to presidential palace, she gravitated to power mainly for the opportunities it afforded to knee it in the crotch. She asked the ayatollah indignant questions about the executions of prostitutes and homosexuals, and he sneered at women like her for going around uncovered, “dragging behind them a tail of men.” It wasn’t all rage and passion; she did brusque and offhand pretty lethally, too: “Don’t you find,” she asked Henry Kissinger during Vietnam, fighting vainly the old ennui, “that it’s been a useless war?” “On this, I can agree,” he said.
Her interviews and war reporting made her a wealthy woman, with homes in Florence, the Tuscan countryside, and Manhattan. Not bad for a girl from a working-class family—a child of anti-Mussolini partisans—who turned to journalism at sixteen as a means of paying her way at medical school. By the time her cancer was diagnosed in the mid-1990s, the chain-smoking dynamo had done everything her profession could offer. Then came September 11. Corriere della Sera very deftly tempted her out of semi-official retirement to unburden herself of her thoughts on the, er, unfortunate events. Even then, in those first weeks, the “cicadas” (as she called them) of cultural relativism were chirruping their pneumatic songs of eternal evasion. In her best-selling post-9/11 improvised arias, La Fallaci was certainly shrill, but perhaps not as shrill as those who in the face of a mountain of evidence insist—from every university, every interior ministry, every Anglican pulpit—that there’s nothing to see here, nothing to ask, nothing to ponder, no great questions over Europe’s future.
She had never lacked bravery. In-deed, she was almost insanely brave. But this wasn’t like flipping the bird to some strutting generalissimo. She must have been surprised by how organized the Muslim opposition was: the Islamic Center of Berne, the Somali Association of Geneva, the SOS Racism of Lausanne, and a group of Muslim immigrants in Neuchâtel, just to name a random sampling of Swiss plaintiffs. What would not have surprised her was the weirdly masochistic pleasure the European judiciary derived from facilitating their attempts to silence her. The Federal Office of Justice in Berne asked the Italian government to extradite her so she could be charged under Article 261b of the Swiss Criminal Code—or, as she called it, the “He-didn’t-chase-me-because-I’m-a-thief-but-because-I’m-a-Muslim” clause. She was sued in France, where suits against writers are routine now. An Italian magistrate indicted her and, because of the European Arrest Warrant, which includes charges of “xenophobia” as grounds for extradition from one EU nation to another, most of the Continent became unsafe for her to set foot in. Only in her last ten days, when she knew she would not live to make her first court date, did she return from political exile to die in a hometown defiled less by immigrant urine than by the watery emissions of incontinent fainthearts and appeasers.
I never really thought cancer would get Oriana Fallaci. She seemed so full of fire in the last few years that one felt certain any tumor would shrivel to ash inside her. But the legal harassment must have taken its toll. The books were huge sellers, but old friends kept their distance. As for those on the left who acknowledged the threat, she parted company with them, too. This year, a dozen intellectuals, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Salman Rushdie, published a manifesto against Islamism and in defense of “secular values for all.” All are doughty warriors and important allies in Europe’s present struggle. But La Fallaci, a lifelong atheist, had come to the conclusion that secular humanism was an insufficient rallying cry, that it had in some sense led to the gaping nullity of contemporary European identity, which Islam had simply steamrollered. By the end, she was, if not a Christian, then (as she formulated it) a “Christian atheist.” In 2005 she was granted a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI on the understanding that she would never divulge what was discussed. It would be interesting to know, but it’s safe to say that for once it wasn’t, “Go fuck yourself. I say what I want.”
At the height of her fame thirty years ago, Oriana Fallaci seemed to embody the triumph of the post-Christian West. The apotheosis of the independent, emancipated woman, she lived long enough to understand that hyperrationalism was, in point of fact, wholly irrational, and she was big enough to change her mind on that without changing her glorious voice. She was a beautiful writer. If her sin is that she went too far, in a craven culture that recoils even from first steps, that is not the worst. Brava, La Fallaci.