Hitchens Returns to the Arena

>BIRMINGHAM -- At a debate yesterday sponsored by Fixed Point Foundation of Alabama, writer Christopher Hitchens weighed in on the parties of God and the nuclear ambitions of Iran. "From my youth," he said, "the big question has always been what happens when a really nasty guy gets a really bad weapon. We're about to find out."

This was his first public foray since his diagnosis of esophageal cancer. Earlier in the day, Hitchens, a contributing editor to The Atlantic and author of the recent memoir Hitch-22, addressed the issue squarely. Asked about his health, he replied, "I'm dying, since you asked," adding, "So are you. But I'm doing it more rapidly." He is currently undergoing his fourth chemotherapy treatment, which, he is pleased to report, has shrunken his outer tumors. He is now consulting with doctors over the equally perilous choices of irradiation or surgery, or whether, he says, "I am wasting my time."

Describing his daily routine since being diagnosed, the prolific author says that on most days he can read, on some days he can write, and every day he can talk. He lamented the occurrence of what he calls "chemo-brain," a dulling side effect of the treatment that makes him "feel stupid."

"This is a problem if you like to think, as I do."

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He states that he has been very fortunate with his physicians, and made a point of publicly thanking geneticist Dr. Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project, and, in his words, "one of the greatest living Americans." Dr. Collins has been generous with his time, personally introducing Hitchens to several experimental treatments -- all so far unsuccessful -- and assuring the author that due to advances in research, the disease which killed his father, and is now ravaging him, will likely not take a similar toll on the next generation.

Asked about the overwhelming public response to his cancer, Hitchens humorously invoked the late film critic Pauline Kael, who once described Tinseltown as the only place she knew where someone could die of encouragement. He made a similar, more literal case for his "Tumortown."

Fixed Point Foundation is an organization devoted to defending Christianity through public events and intellectual discussion. Larry Taunton, executive director of the foundation, said the debate had been planned well in advance of Hitchens's diagnosis and treatment regimen, but that Hitchens "wanted to maintain this particular engagement because it was one that he had made personally." The proposition of the debate was, "Does Atheism Poison Everything?" Arguing in the affirmative was Dr. David Berlinski, renowned mathematics professor and author of The Devil's Delusion. But the night indisputably belonged to Hitchens, who was on form and looked and sounded every bit his reputation, minus only the hair on his head.

During a question and answer session, Hitchens reflected on his many brave friends in Iraqi Kurdistan, who risked uprising at a time when "they knew of nobody else who dared to take on Saddam Hussein that was not already dead."

With the gruesome regime of the Hussein family now decisively ended, he "hopes to do it again through Iran," calling the oppressive theocracy "everything most repellant about totalitarianism," and warning of a near future where "a messianic regime lays hold of an apocalyptic weapon."

At present, Hitchens is determined to finish writing a volume on the Ten Commandments, and is toying with the idea of compiling his essays on disease and mortality into a book. He invoked Horace Mann's famous declaration that until you've accomplished something for humanity, you should be ashamed to die. If he is able to get involved in and write about experimental cancer treatments, "I may be able to answer Horace Mann," he said with a mischievous grin, "and make some money out of it too."