Ward Churchill: Right to Speak Out; Right About 9/11

By Robert Jensen

Published in Counterpunch · February, 2005

Ward Churchill has a right to speak about 9/11.

And Ward Churchill is right about 9/11.

I state that bluntly, even though I disagree with some aspects of the University of Colorado professor’s now-infamous essay, because so many (including some on the left) have defended his First Amendment rights while either remaining silent about, or condemning, the article’s analysis.

So, for the record: The main thesis Churchill put forward in “‘Some People Push Back’: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens” is an accurate account of the depravity of U.S. foreign policy and its relationship to terrorism. Later I’ll return to my disagreements, but at a moment when right-wing forces have targeted not only Churchill but academic freedom and the left in general, it is more important than ever to stand firm on that point.

Malcolm X was correct, and it was appropriate for Churchill to quote him: Chickens do, indeed, come home to roost. And whether U.S. citizens want to acknowledge it or not, there likely will be chickens heading our way for years to come.

I take Churchill’s central thesis to be that (1) U.S. crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and war crimes around the world — from the genocidal campaigns against indigenous people on which this country was founded, through the post-World War II assaults (both by the U.S. military and through proxy forces) on the people of the Third World — are crimes, in legal and moral terms; (2) while contemporary non-state terrorism is a complex phenomenon, U.S. policies aimed at domination and control around the world are one of several key factors in spawning such terrorism; and (3) we must study that history and those connections if we want to prevent further crimes, whether committed by the United States or against U.S. citizens.

I also take a core assertion of Churchill’s essay to be that we citizens of the U.S. empire bear some collective responsibility for those crimes, depending on our level of power and privilege, and our capacity for resistance. As Churchill explained recently, he includes himself in that category, not as a perpetrator but as a member of movements that have failed to stop the crimes (just as I would include myself). Further, those people at the top of the power pyramid must accept their responsibility for those crimes, even if they are not directly involved in the planning and execution of specific criminal acts. The technocrats “at the very heart of America’s global financial empire” which U.S. policy serves, he wrote, are not innocent. (More later on how to understand the boundaries of that category.)

All of those claims are supported by evidence, law, and basic moral principles widely shared across philosophical and spiritual/religious traditions. Churchill is correct in refusing to retract those claims. Those of us who have sharply critiqued U.S. policy also should stand our ground.

It would be particularly cowardly if I tried to distance myself from Churchill and his ideas, given that I have made similar arguments in print and in public speaking over the past decade, especially since 9/11. I was the target of a much less intense vilification campaign on my own university campus immediately after 9/11, which blew over fairly quickly and never reached the level of the attack on Churchill. I am fortunate to remain employed at my university and engaged in the larger intellectual and political world.

I also owe a larger intellectual and political debt to Churchill. His books were influential on my thinking and were one gateway to my exploration of issues involving the U.S. attacks on indigenous people. It was by reading Churchill’s work, particularly A Little Matter of Genocide, that I finally acknowledged the obvious: The European holocaust against indigenous people constitutes genocide and should lead us to confront the barbarism at the heart of the United States.

So, I don’t hesitate to defend Churchill, his work, and the larger political movement of which he is a part. But I also want to articulate where I disagree with his analysis — not to distance myself from him but instead to demonstrate solidarity. Real colleagues do not ignore differences; they engage them. And at the same time, real political allies on the left keep their eyes on the game that right-wing forces play — divide-and-conquer strategies designed to scare people away from supporting principles of justice and each other.

So, to fellow leftists and scholars: This is the worst possible time to duck and cover. It’s an especially important moment to step up in public and engage in open and honest dialogue, to defend our intellectual and political positions and our right to speak about them.

To right-wing forces: Feel free to take passages from this essay out of context to “prove” that I am anti-American, support terrorism, and use the classroom to indoctrinate helpless students in my demonic left-wing ideology designed to destroy our country. Of course you don’t need my permission; you’ll do it anyway, as you’ve done it to Churchill and many others.

To Ward Churchill: There are points in the essay that I think missed the mark, perhaps mostly out of a lack of sufficient time and space for detail in argument. I offer this critique not in condemnation but in support, in the hope that all of us working on these issues can refine our arguments.

First, let’s go to the passage that has received the most attention, the labeling of the people described as a “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire” as “little Eichmanns.” Churchill has said that the passage clearly wasn’t intended to include the janitors, food-service workers, children, rescue workers, or passers-by who were killed, and there’s no reason to doubt him about that, even if the construction was ambiguous enough that many read it as a broader condemnation. But even accepting that narrow construction, the statement is still problematic. Are all the stock traders in the United States really equivalent to Adolph Eichmann? It’s true that Eichmann was a technocrat who helped keep the Nazi machinery of death running, not the person pulling the trigger, so to speak. But Eichmann was a fairly high-level Gestapo bureaucrat, directly involved in the planning of that holocaust. Is it accurate to think of all stock traders — even if marked as “little” versions of Eichmann, implying a much lower scale — as being in an analogous position? Is there a difference between a run-of-the-mill stock broker who manages people’s retirement funds and high-level traders who make deals that can change the value of a nation’s currency and destroy people’s lives?

Certainly many people in this society do jobs that are disconnected from real-world suffering caused by our economic and political system, and it is easy to lose sight of one’s role in that system, and hence one’s moral responsibility. Perhaps better than labeling them Eichmanns would be to talk about the degree of Eichmann-ness in various positions. Maybe stock traders aren’t directly analogous to Eichmann, but simply have more to answer for morally than many others. Maybe a university professor who by uncritically teaching the mythology of a benevolent U.S. empire provides support for imperial crimes has more Eichmann-ness than a secretary at the Pentagon. All are, in some sense, part of the system, but all have different levels of privilege, power, and culpability. Some directly contribute to the maintenance of the system but are well below the level of responsibilities of an Eichmann. By using the comparison so loosely, the term loses meaning. Ironically, if so many people can be Eichmanns in some sense, then the actual Eichmanns in our system — the people in the military, government, and corporations in charge of the actual institutions of war and economic domination, the Pentagon planners and the bank officials who squeeze crippling debt payments out of Third World countries — are off the hook. Collective responsibility cannot mean all are responsible to exactly the same degree, as Churchill himself has articulated. His formulation in his essay forces us to think, and from there I think a more detailed discussion is necessary.

But whatever one’s analysis of that Eichmann-ness quotient, there’s still a sentence in Churchill’s piece that troubles me: “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.” It’s hard to read that as anything other than an endorsement of the use of deadly force against all those involved in “the mighty engine of profit’ to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved,” apparently at the level of stock traders and above. Many have condemned Churchill for this and suggested this comment was obviously crazy. I do not think it’s that simple. If an economic and political system callously destroys human life around the world — as corporate capitalism and fanatical U.S. nationalism do — in a fashion not always visible to many in the system, what will change that morally unacceptable state of affairs? Is violence justified in the face of such a system? If so, what kind of violence can actually bring a more just world?

I am not a pacifist; I believe there are times and places in which the use of violence to prevent a greater violence or end deeply rooted oppression is morally justified. Certainly many of the revolutionary movements that struggled against colonialism met that test. The decisions one makes in such situations are neither simple nor easy.

But I think it is clear that the attacks of 9/11 don’t meet the test. Can anyone imagine a scenario in which such attacks have a reasonable chance of leading to real justice in the world? I cannot, which is why I continue to hope that a predominantly non-violent (though not necessarily pacifist) global movement can restrain the empire and eventually be a vehicle for real peace and real justice. Certainly the massive worldwide protests on Feb. 15, 2003, against the United States’ planned attack on Iraq indicated the potential, even if that movement failed to stop that particular war at that moment. Can the global justice movement that had begun to challenge corporate domination of the planet and the anti-empire/anti-war movement focused on U.S. military power come together to create new possibilities? I don’t know enough to know the answer, but I can continue to try to be part of such a movement when there is no other viable option on the horizon.

A related issue that requires careful analysis is the relationship between the crimes of the United States and the motivations of the people who planned and executed the attacks on 9/11. The policies of the U.S. government in the Arab and Muslim world — not just those of the ideologically fanatical Bush administration, but consistently across Republican and Democratic administrations — have created justified resentment of the United States. Among those policies are unconditional U.S. support for Israel’s illegal and brutal occupation of Palestinian land, the ongoing presence of U.S. troops in the Middle East and U.S. support for repressive regimes throughout the region, and (before the illegal U.S. invasion in 2003) the imposition of harsh economic sanctions on Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands.

Osama bin Laden and others in networks like al-Qaeda criticize those policies, but that does not mean they are the voice of the dispossessed or constitute a national liberation movement. Their own political program is grotesque, not just by the standards of a secular leftist in the United States, but by the standards of progressive movements around the world. While they attack U.S. targets because they want to end U.S. domination of the Muslim world — a reasonable goal — they don’t seek the justice denied to them by the United States. They seek to impose a different kind of authority and control.

But people such as bin Laden can draw on the deep reservoirs of legitimate resentment created by U.S. policy, especially when so many other politicians in the region are unwilling to challenge the United States. For the vast majority of the populace of the Islamic world, that justified anger at U.S. foreign policy has not translated to support for al-Qaeda’s aims and methods, but the shared anger at U.S. domination provides these terror networks their only cover.

So, I agree completely with Churchill’s assessment that “America’s indiscriminately lethal arrogance and psychotic sense of self-entitlement have long since given the great majority of the world’s peoples ample cause to be at war with it,” but I want to highlight the regressive characteristics of some of the political programs of people who go to war with it. As the title of Churchill’s essay reminds us, “some people push back.” But some of those people pushing back aren’t pushing for justice. His labeling of the events of 9/11 as “counterattacks” is true in a descriptive sense, but not in a moral one.

Finally, I would suggest that Churchill’s declaration that he’s “not backing up an inch” misses an opportunity. He has said in an interview that he has “an abiding sorrow” for the victims, and I believe him. But if the way in which some of the loved ones of those innocent victims read his words left them feeling hurt, why not reach out to them? Here’s one possible response:

“I told the truth about U.S. history and policy, and I will not apologize for that. I told the truth about the way in which many Americans avoid responsibility for the crimes of their own government, and I will not apologize for that. I do not owe Bill O’Reilly or the CU Board of Regents or the general public an apology. But to those still grieving their losses of 9/11, I offer solidarity, compassion, and my regret for any deepening of that hurt that my words caused.

“Please accept that, but also accept my challenge. It is the challenge posed by many people of faith, internationalists, and radicals throughout time: The challenge to see all human life as equally valuable. The challenge to act in a world in which innocent people routinely die because of U.S. economic and military policy. A world in which military planners talk casually of “collateral damage” and political leaders decide how many civilians will be incinerated by U.S. bombs in a war to enhance their power. A world in which half the people on the planet live on less than $2 a day. A world in which 11 million children under the age of 5 die each year — that’s 30,000 a day, 10 times the death toll on 9/11 — most from a lack of simple medicines, clean water, and adequate nutrition. A world in which health experts estimate that 6 million of those children could be saved by low-tech interventions costing about $7.5 billion, less than 2 percent of the annual Pentagon budget.

“Someone you love was a victim of terrorism, but we should not construct the United States as a victim. Please consider the example set by members of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, who lost loved ones on 9/11 but rejected the use of that tragedy as a pretext for further U.S. wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq. Please join the movement to end the insanity of U.S. aggression and the violence that it spawns.”

Let me be clear: By suggesting such a response, I am not asking Churchill to back down. Nor am I suggesting he should let go of his anger, an aspect of his intellectual and political profile that I have long admired. When Churchill sees injustice in the world, he does not react as a cold, dispassionate scholar hidden away in a protected office but as a human being outraged by the injustice who wants it to end. There are too few scholars like Churchill, who dedicate their work and lives to ending the suffering that injustice brings. His 9/11 essay conveys that anger, and whatever the differences in interpretation I’ve outlined here, I cannot disagree with, nor discount, his anger. I remember feeling a similar anger that day, mixed with the shock and sadness. And the more I learn about the world, the more I feel it. None of us should let go of that anger just because others are scared of it.

For me, left politics — resistance to unjust impositions of authority and the struggle for a sustainable world that balances a deep yearning for individual freedom and a deep sense of responsibility for each other — is fueled by anger at the world as it exists, along with a love for people and an appreciation for the beauty of the non-human world. That righteous anger is powerful, as long as it does not slip into self-righteousness and stays in balance with that love. We can be glib about that struggle, but in reality the tension — inside of each of us and inside our movements — is not always easy to cope with. I wrestle with it every day.

Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement was fond of quoting a line from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.” In the essay he wrote on 9/11, I believe Churchill was facing those harsh and dreadful realities, and I believe that essay was his attempt on that day to take love out of the realm of dreams and make it real in the world, in action.

In that action, Churchill is angry. He is harsh. And in the central themes of the 9/11 essay and his life’s work, Ward Churchill is right.