This essay, by Christopher Hitchens, was posted at SLATE on Dec. 6 (the day before Assange’s arrest in the UK on rape charges in Sweden.)
In my most recent book, I reprint some words from a British Embassy cable, sent from Baghdad to the Foreign Office in 1976. The subject is Iraq’s new leader. His quiet coup d’etat is reassuringly described as “the first smooth transfer of power since 1958.” It is added, as though understatement were an official stylistic requirement in official prose, that although “strong-arm methods may be needed to steady the ship, Saddam will not flinch.” Admittedly, these words were used before the “smooth transfer” had been extended to include Saddam’s personally supervised execution of half the membership of the Baath Party. But Saddam already had a well-established addiction to violence and repression.
I came across this cable after it had been declassified a few years ago, and I reprinted it because it very accurately reflected the tone of what I’d been told by British diplomats when I was visiting Iraq at the time. And I ask myself: What if I had been able to get my hands on that report when it was first written? Not only would I have had a scoop to my name, but I could have argued that I was exposing a political mentality that—not for the first time in the history of the British Foreign Office—chose to drape tyranny in the language of cliché and euphemism.
But what else, aside from this high-minded ambition (or ambitious high-mindedness), ought I to have considered? A democratically elected British Parliament had enacted an Official Secrets Act, which I could be held to have broken. Would I bravely submit to prosecution for my principles? (I was later threatened with imprisonment for another breach of this repressive law, and it was one of the reasons I decided to emigrate to a country that had a First Amendment.) The moral “other half” of civil disobedience, as its historic heroes show, is that you stoically accept the consequences that come with it.