I knew this would be a night to remember soon after leaving the 23rd Street subway stop. Less than a block away, the queue started. From the entrance to Mason Hall, it twisted down 23rd Street and onto Lexington Avenue. Its sweaty torso, dripping in the clammy heat of a September evening, reached all the way down to 22nd Street, before snaking back almost as far as Third Avenue.
This was not the queue for people looking for tickets. No, those sad souls were soon put right as to the hopelessness of their cause. It was not the queue for people wanting to pick up their already-reserved tickets from the box office. That queue had its own, separate path. The queue that brought in mind Soviet food shortages from the early 1990s was merely the queue of ticket-holders waiting to get into the hall.
A rather desperate-looking young woman was offering $100 for two tickets (face value - $12). Leaflet-wielders made their rounds up and down the queue. Did I know that 9/11 was a conspiracy cooked up by the US government? That the workers should rise up and overthrow the evil cabal of Washington? That Galloway, the 'toad of Damascus', was a tool of vile dictators? Pavement debates about the merits of the war, the failures of Bush, and the anticipated entertainment, sprang up all around.
I joined the queue at 6.20pm. The event was due to start at 7pm. Such was the pressure for seats, so overwhelmed were the door staff, that the first words were not uttered until it was almost 7.45pm.
The motion: 'The March 2003 war in Iraq was necessary and just'
The two men entered from opposite sides of the platform. There was enough aggressive testosterone in the room to give Britney Spears chest hair. Amy Goodman, the curiously lacklustre and frustratingly non-interventionist moderator, gave a short introduction, and they were off. Naked mud wresting was never such compelling spectator sport.
Both men spoke with few or no notes. Both men were eloquent. Both men knew how to work an audience. Both men had enough facts at their fingertips to double the size of Wikipedia. Neither man made more than a cursory attempt to illuminate.
Hitchens listed his view of the benefits of the war: Saddam in jail, freedom of speech for Iraqis, Libya's abandonment of its WMDs, democracy spreading in the Arab world.
Galloway focused on the suffering of the Iraqi people from the war, the 100,000 dead, the increased terrorism the war had fostered, the hatred of the West that was growing across the world.
More heat than light
But mostly, they hurled insults at one another. Insults poured in a vertiginous torrent. There was enough hatred, yes, real hatred, between these two men to keep a small civil war going for several decades.
Hitchens started by accusing Galloway of 'slobbering'. Slobbering then over Saddam. Now slobbering over Assad of Syria. Slobbering over every loathsome dictator he came across (although, disappointingly, he didn't accuse him of slobbering over Slobodan..).
For Galloway, Hitchens had performed a feat never before seen in the natural world: he had undergone a 'metamorphosis from a butterfly back into a slug' and was now wallowing in his own slime. People like Hitchens, he said, are ready to fight 'to the last drop of other people's blood'.
The audience loved it. Or, rather, the audience loved hating the speaker they were opposed to. From where I was sitting, it seemed the audience was reasonably evenly divided, with perhaps a small advantage to Galloway. It frequently got rowdy. It frequently got profane. It frequently was great fun.
Things threatened to turn ugly when Galloway described the attacks of 11 September 2001 as coming from 'a swamp of hatred created by us'. Shouts of 'how dare you!', 'go home!' and worse echoed across the hall. When Hitchens replied by evoking the memory of the 9-11 dead in his favour, he was subjected to a similar barrage of audience invective. New Yorkers, it's quite clear, do not take kindly to having the events of four years ago used to score cheap political points, whichever side they're on.
What remained unsaid
For the first hour or so, this was all very entertaining. But the searing heat in the hall began to take its toll. Hitchens, whose scruffiness always seems rather deliberate, was sweating profusely. Galloway, in his immaculate and undoubtedly extremely expensive suit, looked more composed, but even he was wiping his brow more and more frequently.
I began to long for some real substance, for both men to be asked to address those thorny parts of their arguments, rather than being allowed simply to grandstand.
To take just two examples:
Hitchens never properly addressed the issue of whether the horror that is today's Iraq in any way shook his faith in the rightness of the war. He was never asked whether the numerous factual negative consequences of the war could ever have any bearing on his argument, and what, if any, responsibility the US and UK bore for these. Simply denouncing the Lancet's casualty figures as 'crazed fabrications' was really not good enough.
Galloway made much of the illegality of the war. He was never pressed on whether, had the war been given UN approval, he would then have supported it - or whether Western powers ever had in principle the right or the duty to intervene in sovereign states to prevent atrocities.
Both men might well have good answers to these questions. But we were never to know, as adding quotations to the Oxford Dictionary of Insults seemed all too often to be their one and only aim.
The best bits
Where was Hitchens good? He was good in defending his own support for the war, and his change of heart over the last decade. He had the sense to admit that Bush and Blair had done world politics a disservice in selling the war as a way of ridding humanity of the imminent threat of Saddam. And his rhetoric was forceful in both cataloguing the reasons for wanting Saddam gone, and in listing the positive developments that had resulted from his departure.
And Galloway? His best moment was his analysis of previous attempts by Western government to impose order on benighted countries - attempts, he said, that were notable by their ending in failure. He exposed as a fallacy the hope that merely ridding those countries of 'foreign insurgents' would solve the problem.
And the winner is?..
I suspect that supporters of either side would claim their man as the winner. I entered the hall with many questions in my head. I left with hardly any of them answered.
I'll end with this rather enigmatic statement made during the debate, which I scribbled without attribution into my notebook:
This is masochism, but it is being offered to you by a sadist.
Also posted at The Sharpener.