A Psychologist’s Defense of Ward Churchill

There’s an excellent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Scott Smallwood that explains the sequence of events that led to Hamilton College inviting Ward Churchill to speak and the subsequent tsunami. (Is Larry Summers lucky or what?)

Churchill is under fire, literally and metaphorically for stringing together 15 letters:


A common six letter word and a less common nine letter word ignite into an explosion of outrage. Was it intentional to use 6 and then 9 as a callback to that infamous year in lefty US history? Or just the creator’s way of telling Professor Churchill that trickster’s on his side?

Smallwood writes:

This three year old essay describing the 911 WTC victims as “little Eichmanns” Hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Ward Churchill compared the victims to the Nazis. A professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he wrote in an essay that those killed at the World Trade Center were not innocent civilians but “little Eichmanns.”

The analogy is so outrageous, one thinks, that surely he immediately got into trouble.

Actually, the analogy is extremely apt and not outrageous at all. It is clear from the context, that Professor Churchill was referring to Hannah Arendt’s comments about Eichmann.

Hannah Arendt was a journalist for the newspaper “The New Yorker” when she saw the Eichmann Trial in Israel in 1961. Her book is based on a series of articles she wrote about the trial.

In the article, she coined the term “banality of evil.” Hitler’s henchmen who had behaved monstrously did not look like monsters. Instead, they were bland and benign. According to Arendt, Eichmann’s character flaw was mindless obedience to authority, not a sadistic or psychopathic personality.

This, of course, is even scarier than finding that Eichmann and other Nazis were crazy in some way. Arendt’s analysis inspired Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority at Yale University and Philip Zimbardo’s Prison Study at Stanford University.

So there is nothing absurd or outrageous about using the term “Eichmann” to refer to the stockbrokers who died that day. It’s a little strange to completely ignore the firefighters, secretaries and building maintenance workers who died that day. And singling out the stockbrokers and ignoring the firefighters dehumanizes them the same way Nazis dehumanized Jews.

I agree with Churchill that America was not an “innocent victim” on 911. I’m tempted to agree that “titans” of finance are more guilty than the rest of us. But even though they’re better compensated than the rest of us, they’re no more guilty, really. We’re all little Eichmanns. Only the far left is willing to admit it.

Churchill’s crime was noting that the 911 victims in particular and Americans in general were not innocent lambs. This is worse than Susan Sontag’s crime ­ noting that the 911 terrorists weren’t “cowards.” But it’s just as true.

Since he’s well within his first amendment rights, Churchill’s attackers are questioning his academic credentials. He’s been forced to prove that he’s a genuine native American.

Social psychologists, philsophers and sociologists should be defending Churchill for his brilliant, but veiled reference to Arendt, Milgram and Zimbardo. But the academic social science left has been lukewarm at best to Churchill.

The cycle of dehumanization continues.

DEBORAH FRISCH, Ph. D., is a psychologist and Former director, of Decision, Risk and Management Sciences Program at the National Science Foundation. She can be reached through her blog: South(West) Paw.