I never met Oregon’s gadfly senator of the mid-20th century, Wayne Morse. I’m told he never squirmed. But today he might be squirming in his grave.
In some ways, were Morse with us, he would be having a field day. He’d be his old self, angry and outspoken about what is happening in Washington, D.C., and Iraq. But something in his old back yard of Eugene would stir in him an emotion foreign to his lifetime: embarrassment. How, he would ask, could the center bearing his name at the University of Oregon Law School turn away an invited speaker, depriving him of something always vital to Morse: freedom of expression?
That’s what has happened at the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics. It has disinvited Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor at the center of a national controversy. Churchill was to share with his wife, Colorado professor Natsu Taylor Saito, a luncheon address at a conference co-sponsored by the Morse Center.
Churchill, an ethnic studies professor, is controversial because of an essay he wrote in 2001 suggesting there was some justification for the 9/11 attacks. The UO decision to remove him from the Morse program followed action by Hamilton College of New York to cancel his appearance there.
There is irony in the announcement of Churchill being dropped from a UO event coming a month to the day before scheduled reopening of the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza at the Lane County building in downtown Eugene. On March 15, the remodeled plaza will be opened with the unveiling of a life-size statue of Oregon’s most famous senator.
As a board member of the Morse Corp., I’ve seen the statue. It has the senator in a typical pose, gesturing vigorously with a forefinger. From what I know of the man, today he would be pointing that finger directly at the center that bears his name.
Many were the times citizens — including those in his home state — did not want to hear what Morse had to say. But he had the courage and freedom to say it. Prime example is his early opposition to the war in Vietnam, as one of only two U.S. senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that illegally expanded the war.
Churchill’s essay — written more than three decades and three wars later — used extreme language. He described some victims in the World Trade Center as "technocrats" and "little Eichmanns," a reference to Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who executed Hitler’s plan to exterminate Jews during World War II. True or not, his words stirred a lot of anger, just like Morse’s statements that went counter to government policy.
Margaret Hallock, director of the Morse Center, said she believes that in the aftermath of the controversy growing around Churchill, his presentation with his wife would "overshadow two days’ worth of other presentations." What would add to Morse’s anger is the assumption that the center agrees with Colorado’s governor, who said Churchill holds "pro-terrorist views."
At issue is Churchill’s written statement: "On the morning of 9/11, a few more chickens — along with some half-million dead Iraqi children — came home to roost in a big way at the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center."
In response, Churchill has said: "I am not a defender of the 9/11 attacks, but simply pointed out if U.S. foreign policy results in massive death and destruction abroad, we cannot feign innocence when some of that destruction is returned."
Morse might have used different words. But his willingness to speak the unpopular when it needed to be heard would have resulted in his saying the same thing. Were he to disagree with Churchill, Morse still would insist on the man’s right to express his views.
If Churchill ever does make it to Eugene, there’s at least one venue where he could freely speak: The Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza.
GEORGE BERES is a board member of the Wayne Morse Corp. The views expressed here are his own.