Distortions of Acumen

The shameless trashing of Ward Churchill from the left side of our political setting was perhaps the most grotesque of all the attacks faced by the tenured University of Colorado professor after his essay “Some Push Back” began making headlines in early 2005. It was predictable that right-wingers like David Horowitz and pundit Sean Hannity would blather about Churchill being un-American, but the liberal loathing of the radical academic came with an extra unexpected fervor. Let’s take Marc Cooper, contributing editor to The Nation magazine, whom, on his personal blog, responded to Churchill’s 9/11 thesis:

“Move over, Mumia. The Left has a new cause celebre that’s a guaranteed loser: Ward Churchill I saw the essay at the time and was nauseated by it. I have been tempted over the years to write something about it, but have always decided not to. Only because I consider Churchill to be an irrelevant and clearly deranged loner on the edge of the looniest left.

“Now I regret not having denounced him. Too bad others on the left also didn’t quickly hurry to divorce themselves from this guy.

“Churchill, as you know, surfaced in the news last month when he was invited to speak at an upstate New York university and some conservatives raised a ruckus ­ as they damn well should. If this guy can hang on to his tenure at CU[,] fine. But damned if student funds from somewhere else should be used to host him as some sort of guest speaker.”

It was the kind of cheap jab Cooper is famous for. He’s spelled out all sorts of ad hominems over the years — from the bashing of Mumia to the castration of Hugo Chavez — Cooper claimed to have reread Churchill’s essay, only to find “it more offensive than when I originally saw it right after 9/11.” If one only read Cooper’s grotesque distortions of Churchill’s fiery analysis (thinking a liberal would at least give Ward a fair crack), they would most likely believe the professor deserves the filthy muck that has been shoveled all over his career.

What did Cooper find so offensive anyway? Most likely it was Churchill’s commentary on the “technocrats” in the World Trade Center:

“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.”

Churchill’s Eichmann reference is what got him in deep shit with the likes of New York’s Governor Pataki and Bill O’Reilly over at Fox News. Taken out of context, Churchill’s remarks seem difficult to defend. When it stands alone, the aforementioned statement clearly seems to illustrate that Churchill praised the attacks of 9/11. But did he really champion the horrific atrocity?

Not exactly.

Prior to his Eichmann comment, Churchill used the following precursor to set up his case: ” [The 9/11 terrorists] did not license themselves to ‘target innocent civilians.'”

There you have it. Churchill was trying to make the argument that the 9/11 terrorists did not target the WTC simply to kill innocent Americans. According to him, the 9/11 attackers went after the WTC because it was a legitimate military target in an act of war. Plain and simple. Of course, Churchill should have clarified his position better in his original essay given the weight of his argument. (He defends and explains himself later, which we’ll see in a moment.) But, unfortunately, his vagueness aroused a plethora of reactionary attacks, both from the right and left.

Churchill should have emboldened this “little Eichmann” argument in “Some Push Back” by pointing out that CIA offices were housed in the WTC 7, along with a large office of cruise missile manufacturer Raytheon in the Twin Towers. He could have also stressed that the terrorists likely attacked the WTC in hopes of inflicting a massive wound to the US economy, which is the driving force behind the violent war machine.

Even so, Cooper and many others who criticized Churchill’s statement failed to point out that the professor, in his original essay, never argued the WTC attacks were morally justified. In fact, he said it was an act of war, which he detests. As Churchill wrote in “Some Push Back,” “if what the combat teams did to the WTC and the Pentagon can be understood as acts of war — and they can — then the same is true” for the US conduct in the Middle East and elsewhere.

From there he goes on to compare the terrorists to former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who oversaw the US-imposed UN sanctions of Iraq, which killed tens of thousands of people, mostly elderly and small children. “Evil — for those inclined to embrace the banality of such a concept — was perfectly incarnated in that malignant toad known as Madeline Albright, squatting in her studio chair like Jabba the Hut, blandly spewing the news that she’d imposed a collective death sentence upon the unoffending youth of Iraq.”

Does such a harsh critique of the US military actions, and Churchill’s comparison of these ventures to the WTC attacks, imply that he is delighted people were killed on 9/11? Not in the least.

In fact, as noted, Churchill argues that these were not individual acts of terror (unless you also categorize US military activity as terror): “This is to say that, since the assaults on the WTC and Pentagon were an act of war — not ‘terrorist incidents’ — they must be understood as components in a much broader strategy designed to achieve specific results.”

Of course, those results can be debated, and alleged al Qaeda operatives have since attacked many civilian centers in Europe and elsewhere since 2001. But on 9/11, perhaps they knew the US government would react violently, attacking countries in the Middle East — which would only inflame more rage against the US and consequently aid in the recruitment of more fighters to sign up for bin Laden’s jihad. Days after Cooper ripped into Churchill, the liberal newswire CommonDreams.org ran a bitter column entitled “Ward Churchill’s Banality of Evil” by Anthony Lappé. Like our pal Cooper, Lappé, who I consider a friend, argued that the prof’s critique of 9/11 was utterly reprehensible:

“Consider the professor’s twisted logic: People who work in the financial industry are legitimate military targets. Where do you draw the line? 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.”

To start, Churchill never actually said that WTC workers should be legitimate targets. Rather, he said that using the US government’s own rationale, the WTC would most likely be a target for a military attack — for if no other reason than it housed a large CIA office and was an economic bastion of the military-industrial complex.

Arguing that the WTC would be a justifiable military target using the US government’s bloody rationale, Churchill wrote in “Some People Push Back”:

“[The WTC] 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.”

Lappé (and CommonDreams, by association) really got off track when he implied that Churchill somehow condoned the attacks on the WTC attack and the Pentagon. In response to misinterpretations such as Lappé’s, Churchill lays it out quite clearly in his essay, “Lessons Not Learned and the War on Free Speech”:

“It should be emphasized that I applied the ‘little Eichmanns’ characterization only to those described as ‘technicians.’ Thus, it was obviously not directed to the children, janitors, food service workers, firemen and random passers-by killed in the 9-11 attack. According to Pentagon logic, was simply part of the collateral damage. Ugly? Yes. Hurtful? Yes. And that’s my point. It’s no less ugly, painful or dehumanizing a description when applied to Iraqis, Palestinians, or anyone else. If we ourselves do not want to be treated in this fashion, we must refuse to allow others to be similarly devalued and dehumanized in our name.”

The fuzzy nature of “collateral damage” is what I think Churchill was really getting at. And Churchill’s rejoinder to critics was only clarifying his earlier position, not backpedaling, as Lappé contested. Indeed, Churchill sees the WTC attack as it was — “ugly” and “hurtful.” He also thinks such militaristic conceptions, when applied to other US ventures such as Iraq and Palestine, are also “ugly” and “hurtful.”

This isn’t “twisted logic,” as Lappé puts it. Or rather, it isn’t Churchill’s “twisted logic,” but the “twisted logic” of the US military establishment. Churchill simply took the WTC massacre, looked at it through the lens of the US government, and pointed out why the attack on the WTC could be justified militarily. Nowhere in Churchill’s original essay did he state such a terrorist act was morally justified.

And there’s the key point. The attacks on the WTC weren’t right, but malicious and iniquitous. Churchill’s larger parallel is what critics like Lappé seem unable to stomach: that the US “military” interventions can also be classified as “terror.” Churchill’s argument, despite what Cooper and Lappé claimed, was, and is, sound. Does his interest “in hearing about” other ways and places the terrorists could have struck to inflict some “penalty … upon the little Eichmanns” still bother you?

His question, to me, seems to express that if the assault on the WTC was only about killing innocents, then how can one ignore the fact that the WTC 7 housed a CIA office and a weapons producer like Raytheon? Was this irrelevant, or just coincidental? Like it or not, Churchill forced us to address his claim that the WTC was a military target.

In “Lessons Not Learned and the War on Free Speech,” Churchill again clarifies,

“I am not a ‘defender’ of the September 11 attacks, but simply pointing out that if U.S. foreign policy results in massive death and destruction abroad, we cannot feign innocence when some of that destruction is returned. I have never said that people “should” engage in armed attacks on the United States, but that such attacks are a natural and unavoidable consequence of unlawful U.S. policy. As Martin Luther King, quoting Robert F. Kennedy, said, ‘Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.’

“This is not to say that I advocate violence; as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam I witnessed and participated in more violence than I ever wish to see. What I am saying is that if we want an end to violence, especially that perpetrated against civilians, we must take the responsibility for halting the slaughter perpetrated by the United States around the world

“Finally, I have never characterized all the September 11 victims as ‘Nazis.’ What I said was that the ‘technocrats of empire’ working in the World Trade Center were the equivalent of ‘little Eichmanns.’ Adolf Eichmann was not charged with direct killing but with ensuring the smooth running of the infrastructure that enabled the Nazi genocide. Similarly, German industrialists were legitimately targeted by the Allies.”

Now back to Cooper, who wrote that he would “be terrified if this guy was teaching [his] kid.” First, Cooper made no mention of Churchill’s counter essay in his online screed, even though he has “kept half-an-eye on Churchill since” his original essay first appeared. We can certainly call Cooper’s smarmy blindness selective perception, for he wants to see what he wants to see.

This leads us to the much larger issue at hand — the implications for tenured professors and academics who publicly voice their objectionable political and cultural opinions. What is now happening to Ward Churchill is pure intimidation, spearheaded by Republican Gov. Pataki, exacerbated by Fox News and David Horowitz, and condoned by liberals such as Cooper.

The current battle over whether Churchill keeps his post at Colorado University, along with the Norman Finkelstein and David Graeber cases at DePaul and Yale respectively — is setting the bar for a whole assembly of radical intellectuals who could one day become the target of McCarthy-like censorship. It’s time to move past Ward Churchill’s fearless thesis about the US Empire and fight for his right to voice his opinions publicly. No matter how unsavory they may be.

JOSHUA FRANK is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of the forthcoming Red State Rebels, to be published by AK Press in March 2008.



JOSHUA FRANK is the managing editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of the new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, published by Haymarket Books. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.