Controversial statements by radical University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill have become the latest 9/11 free speech flame-up. In an essay that has since been developed into a book entitled “On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” he compared “technocrats” inside the World Trade Center to Adolf Eichmann, Hitler’s Final Solution logistics man. Churchill strongly implied the WTC “technocrat’s” complicity in the machinations of the American empire made them legitimate targets of the 9/11 hijackers. He wrote:
Well, really. Let’s get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they [technocrats] were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire – the “mighty engine of profit” to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to “ignorance” – a derivative, after all, of the word “ignore” – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it. [emphasis added]
Strong stuff. Other public figures have found themselves in hot water for making controversial statements about 9/11. On 9/12, Noam Chomsky noted the attacks were neither unexpected or unprecedented in the scope of recent human suffering. His timing left something to be desired, but he was making a fairly mundane observation. Churchill is making a much more radical statement here. He has since issued an explanation in which he backpedals and tries to shift the emphasis onto the Pentagon’s policies (see statement and GNN discussion here). But he fails to disown the thrust of the original argument: those who take part in an evil capitalist system should be held accountable, like Adolf Eichmann was. Eichmann was the mild-mannered German bureaucrat who designed the plans for carrying out the Holocaust. He was famously captured by Israel in 1960, tried for his crimes and hanged. His everyman demeanor prompted Hannah Arendt to coin the term “the banality of evil.”
The storm around Churchill’s statements has many on the far left coming to his defense. As a Native American activist, he has a long record of fighting injustice (see my interview with his frequent co-author Jim Vander Wall here), and I too support his right to free speech. Ruffling feathers is what good professors do. It’s a shame that the controversy has cost him his chairmanship of the Ethnic Studies Department at Colorado (he resigned this week). Now his troubles have reached all the way to New York, where an appearance at Hamilton College was cancelled due to what administrators said were security concerns over a flood of death threats.
But there’s a big difference between the right to speak your mind, and being right. And I think he’s dead wrong.
Maybe it’s because I was blocks away when the towers fell. Maybe it’s because I’m more of a wussy pacifist than my more radical brothers. But I cannot find it in me to find what he wrote anything other than completely reprehensible.
Consider the professors twisted logic. First one has to ignore the fact that the main crime he accuses the U.S. of the embargo of Iraq under Saddam which resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths was an act of the U.S. government and was likely unpopular, as most limits on commerce are, with the financial community. Lets grant him that the bankers are complicit in Americas global corporate domination. We can all agree on that. But where do you draw the line when it comes to doling out the professors brand of tough justice? What about the secretaries who serve coffee to the little Eichmanns? They keep the evil system caffeinated, should they die? What if you own stock? Does earning dividends on GE mean your apartment building should be leveled with you in it? What if you keep your money at Chase or Citibank? Buy stuff at Wal-Mart? Pay federal taxes? Or better yet, what if you work for the government? Churchill himself works for a state university. He takes a paycheck from an institution that in all likelihood does military research and is probably ten times more complicit in the actual machinery of war than any junior currency trader.
If Churchill’s intent was to merely challenge us – to get us to look in the mirror and ask if maybe we all have a little Eichmann in us, then I applaud him. In some ways, we all do – no matter how hard we try to buy recycled toilet paper or not to buy Air Jordans. As Americans, we are all complicit in varying degrees in an exploitative system. It’s the acknowledgment of my special responsibility as a privileged person on this planet that keeps me doing what I’m doing. But Churchill, no matter how he later tried to spin it, was clearly trying to do something more than “shock the yuppies.” He was pinning a target on the backs of a very specific group of people, the “technocrats,” and saying they deserved what they got that clear September morning. It was a vicious, sloppy polemic that he deserves to be called out on. To argue that a commodities trader (which many WTC victims were) deserves to pay with his life for buying pork bellies low and selling them high is simplistic, unprogressive, and I dare say, fascist – even if, as he later tried to argue, he was merely applying America’s standards back on itself.
It’s a shame to see such a great champion of the repressed as Ward Churchill succumb to such wrongheaded logic – the very logic that has led to the belief that certain groups of people could be annihilated for their perceived complicity in the acts of the larger group.
Anthony Lappé (firstname.lastname@example.org) is GNN's Executive Editor. He is the co-author with Stephen Marshall of GNN's first book, True Lies, and the producer of GNN's award-winning Iraq documenatry, BattleGround: 21 Days on the Empire's Edge.
Check out his blog, The Bunker, at http://www.gnn.tv/users/user.php?id=3
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