Christopher Hitchens dies at 62; engaging, enraging author and essayist
He was contemptuous of Chomsky and others who argued that American imperialism, by turning much of the world against the U.S., had drawn the terrorists here.

"I can only hint at how much I despise a left that thinks of Osama bin Laden as a slightly misguided anti-imperialist," Hitchens wrote later. "Instead of internationalism, we find among the left now a sort of affectless, neutralist, smirking isolationism" and "a masochistic refusal to admit that our own civil society has any merit."

In September 2002 Hitchens wrote his last column for the Nation, which he said had become "the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace" than bin Laden, and organized intellectuals and activists to campaign against Saddam Hussein's rule. He was criticized just as harshly by his former allies, such as New Left Review editor Tariq Ali, who wrote that the Hitchens he knew disappeared in the 9/11 inferno, leaving a "vile replica" in his place.

In 2007, on his 58th birthday, Hitchens enjoyed a moment of high patriotism and irony: The onetime Trotskyite took the oath of U.S. citizenship in a private ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial, conducted by George W. Bush's homeland security chief, Michael Chertoff.

What Hitchens once said of Vidal was also abundantly true of himself: He possessed "the rare gift of being amusing about serious things as well as serious about amusing ones." In Vanity Fair, which he joined in 1992, he wrote of his personal encounters with waterboarding and Brazilian bikini waxes with self-deprecating humor and cerebral detachment.

Both qualities informed his writing on his bleakest subject: his cancer.

"I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death," he wrote in Vanity Fair last September, shortly after learning he had esophageal cancer that had spread to his lungs and lymph nodes. "But nothing prepared me for the early morning last June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse." Noting that his father had died of the same type of cancer, he added, "In whatever kind of a 'race' life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist." His cancer was classified Stage 4 and he readily conceded that "there is no Stage 5."

His illness caused him to cancel the publicity tour for "Hitch-22," which opens, eerily, with a rumination on death prompted by his recollection of an incident years ago when he was referred to as "the late Christopher Hitchens." In this prologue, he rejects fatalism and declares "I personally want to 'do' death in the active and not the passive, and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me."

He aggressively sought treatment, which included genetic testing to determine which chemotherapy drug might be most effective on his cancer. He was encouraged to try the experimental approach by his friend, Dr. Francis Collins, the eminent geneticist and born-again Christian with whom he had debated the existence of God.

He also kept up a frenetic pace of writing and, until recently, public speaking. In one of his most publicized appearances after being diagnosed with cancer, he faced Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and recent convert to Catholicism, in a sold-out Toronto debate on whether religion was a force for good in the world.

Despite his obvious frailty, Hitchens was in top form, provoking wide laughter when he compared God to "a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea."

At the debate's end, the audience of 2,700 voted him the winner.

elaine.woo@latimes.com