Killing the Messenger:
Ward Churchill’s Sins Against the Empire

By Steven Best
February 10th 2005
Press Action

“The gross distortions of what I actually said can only be viewed as an attempt to distract the public from the real issues at hand and to further stifle freedom of speech and academic debate in this country.” -Ward Churchill

Academic free speech and the First Amendment once again are under intense fire in the midst of a political and mass media witch hunt on Ward Churchill, Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The controversy erupted over objection to Churchill’s participation on a panel at Hamilton College in upstate New York once a controversial essay he published on the Internet the day after 9-11, entitled “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” was unearthed and transformed into fodder for a lurid media spectacle.

Churchill was tarred and feathered as demands for termination of his tenured position grew to a roar. The attack shifted from the words of his essay to the body of his writings and even to scrutiny of his professed Indian heritage. It immediately became clear that the Right was hunting far larger game than just a radical critic of US imperialism named Ward Churchill. They were exploiting the controversy in an effort to advance their ongoing Culture Wars whereby they seek to demolish free speech rights, liberal and left values, and the academic tenure system which in their view protects an army of crazed radicals corrupting the minds of youth.

Churchill’s essay argued that 9-11 was inevitable blowback in response to US global terrorism and imperialist policies against Islamic nations. Harking back to Malcolm X’s quip that the assassination of President Kennedy was an example of “chickens coming home to roost,” such that leaders of a violent system themselves are victims of violence, Churchill applied the same analogy to the US system as a whole. According to Churchill, 9-11 was the long-delayed but inexorable moment when the US paid a small fraction of the political costs it has incurred in its ruthless assault on nations and peoples around the globe. Churchill emphasized that unless it drastically changes its imperialist policies, the US will be struck again, likely in a bigger and more destructive way.

Churchill underscored the contradictions and hypocrisies in the thinking of the US government and citizenry, whereby the nation mourns the victims of the September 11 attacks, but sheds no tears for the half million children killed in the US economic blockade of Iraq during the 1990s, the 100,000 innocent citizens killed in the US bombing and invasion of Iraq, or the countless others who died as a result of US invasions of Grenada, Panama, Nicaragua, Chile, East Timor, and elsewhere. The nation condemns 9-11 as a heinous act, but it is no less despicable than the terrorist violence the US directs against peoples throughout the globe.

One can read similar critiques of US imperialism in Left critics such as Noam Chomsky, but Chomsky is ignored not demonized. So why the national furor over Ward Churchill? Whereas Chomsky condemned 9-11 and viewed it as a terrorist attack, Churchill argued that the World Trade Center, like the Pentagon, was a military not a civilian target, and thus flying planes into the twin towers was not an act of terrorism. In imprecise language at best, Churchill declared that the 2,977 people killed in the “sterile sanctuary of the twin towers” were not innocent victims, but rather “little Eichmanns.” Without nuance or qualification, Churchill argued that those killed in the World Trade Center were as culpable for US violence as top Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann was for Hitler’s “final solution.” In his now infamous words, Churchill said, “those in the World Trade Center ... 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.”

Electronic Lynching and Right-Wing Jihad

Churchill’s essay was flawed in numerous senses and was sharply criticized by critics from both the Right and the Left. Churchill rightly condemned the barbaric history of US imperialism, but he offered no critique of fundamentalist Islamic movements rooted in fanaticism, intolerance, and violence. He failed to articulate the fundamental differences between two forms of opposition to US policy: a secular, pro-modern Left critique that is progressive, emancipatory, and radically democratic, and an atavistic, fundamentalist, anti-modern critique that is reactionary, theocratic, puritanical, and repressive. Numerous liberals and Leftists have defended Churchill’s First Amendment rights, while offering more thoughtful and nuanced analyses of 9-11 attentive to these distinctions.

The critique from the Right went far beyond addressing the substance of Churchill’s essay, however, to launch vicious ad hominem attacks on his character and ethnic background, to distort his intention and meaning, and to demand that he be fired from a tenured position designed to protect academics from ideological persecution. Conservative politicians and media pundits demonized Churchill as a “madman” and “cheerleader for terrorists” who spews vile “hate speech” tantamount to treason. Gleefully pouncing on their favorite target—the alleged hegemony of the “academic Left” (an absurd myth as any vulnerable and marginalized progressive professor can attest to)—right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Joe Scarborough exhorted their benighted media flocks to flood Hamilton College, the University of Colorado, and Colorado politicians with vociferous letters of complaint demanding that Churchill be fired.

Right-wing pundits whipped up such an Orwellian hate fest that Churchill received 140 death threats within a four-day period after the story broke on national media. Politicians eagerly took the bit to promote their Culture War against liberal and left values. Along with a bevy of republican and democrat state lawmakers, Colorado Governor Bill Owens excoriated Churchill and demanded termination of his tenure. The Colorado House of Representatives released a Joint Resolution in support of the 9-11 victims’ families and vilified Churchill for striking “an evil and inflammatory blow against America’s healing process.”

Within the Colorado university community, reaction was mixed. Outraged Board of Regent members such as Tom Lucern demanded that Churchill be fired. The Board held a special meeting on February 3rd to determine his fate, and decided to postpone the decision for a month while they scrutinize every word he has written. The interim chancellor at Colorado University and Boulder Faculty Assembly declared Churchill’s ideas to be “repugnant,” “offensive,” and “odious,” but nonetheless supported his right to express them, while his colleagues in the Ethnic Studies department provided “full and unconditional support” for his free speech rights. While College Republicans denounced Churchill and organized a petition drive for his dismissal, student supporters denounced the furor as a McCarthyesque witch hunt engineered to silence a progressive member of their community. Showing logical fidelity to their philosophy of freedom, some College Republicans chastised their right-wing peers and formed the organization Republicans for Churchill in support of his First Amendment rights. As the mob’s furor grew, the American Union of University Professors and the American Civil Liberties Union came out strongly in favor of controversial speech and Churchill’s First Amendment rights.

Free Speech—Except for You

Churchill’s critics from the Right apparently never read his essay, or if they bothered have seriously misinterpreted it. A cursory reading of “Some People Push Back” reveals that Churchill was not applauding the 9-11 attacks. Rather, as he clarified in a written statement after the media frenzy broke, he was “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.” Churchill insists that he “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.” Churchill insists that his real point was 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.”

Whereas Bush is perpetuating his violent policies in Iraq and doing everything he can to increase rather than lessen terrorism around the world and against the US, Churchill was arguing that if the US government and citizenry truly want peace, then they must end the violence against the victims of US ambition and aggression. Nowhere in his essay does Churchill advocate violence against anyone, and nothing in his analysis falls outside of the range of constitutionally protected speech. The fatwas demanding his termination are baseless.

To give an example of a tendentious and decontextualized misreading of Churchill, consider his statement from an April 2004 interview in Satya magazine where he stated that “More 9-11s are needed.” Glibly interpreting this statement in a vacuum, the fulminating pundit could easily uphold Churchill as pro-terrorism and anti-American. Read in its proper context, however, it is clear that Churchill is only saying that it may take more 9-11s before the American people wake up to the real causes of such attacks and realize if they want peace they have to promote justice. As of yet, there has been no serious debate of the various causes of 9-11 and the American people apparently learned little but how to revert to a blind jingoism.

The methodology of Churchill’s persecutors is to seize on the inflammatory sound bite about little Eichmanns, pump it up into alleged “hate speech” against America, and scrub it from its context where he analyzes some of the root causes of terrorist attacks against the US. The doublespeak strategy of Churchill’s right-wing critics is to affirm his right to free speech, but then argue that it doesn’t apply to him because (1) taxpayers fund his position and (2) he is incompetent, morally irresponsible, and lacks integrity.

The first argument is wholly nonsensical. Taxpayers might have the right to ensure that those people whose occupations they pay for do their job, but they do not have the right to enforce the content of their speech and thought. A professor is doing his or her job when the professor publishes and teaches students in a professional and responsible way. The terms “professional and responsible” do not mean that the professor holds no views of his or her own, even controversial and radical ones, but rather that the professor respects the students’ own views and fosters critical thinking and learning processes within the classroom. As Ward Churchill is a prolific writer who is immensely popular with his students, there seems to be no credible case to assail him for being unprofessional or irresponsible. Such a charge would have to be substantiated on the evidence of his meeting professional teaching standards, and not on his political views and writings.

Moreover, who are these “taxpayers” conservatives insist that professors like Churchill are so beholden to? There is no monolithic bloc of people against or for someone like Churchill. Some taxpayers are conservatives who would detest his views and support his dismissal, but others are liberals and radicals who defend his views and his right to state them. I am a professor and taxpayer in Texas and unavoidably fund viewpoints and research projects with which I strongly disagree. But I am under no illusion that I have a right to tell other professors and state employees what to say or to silence them when I disagree.

The second argument is agreeable in principle, but applying it to Churchill smacks of academic fascism. Among the most vocal of Churchill’s opponents is Colorado Governor Bill Owens. Reveling in the media spotlight, Owens has lost no opportunity to defame Churchill on every level. Appearing more frequently on national TV than Viagra commercials, Owens argues that Churchill should be fired from his tenured position because he is “incompetent” as a scholar and teacher and “lacks integrity” as a human being. Although tenure grants a professor permanent job status, a professor can nonetheless be fired for things such as criminal activity, sexual harassment, plagiarism, or incompetence. Except within the boundaries of following professional academic rules and social laws, the concept of “integrity” is not directly applicable to assessing whether or not a professor should keep a position.

No doubt, universities employ professors who are liars, alcoholics, drug addicts, poor parents, and so on, but their faults as persons and “lack of integrity” have no direct relevance to their academic job performance. Owens and other persecutors see Churchill’s radicalism not as a valid political position but rather as a fatal character flaw (as they no doubt would like to see a uniform America devoid of dissent) that warrants termination from his tenured position. But this politicization of moral categories is as arbitrary as it is repressive.

Similarly, the concept of “incompetence” certainly is vague and open to conflicting interpretations. If a professor plagiarized his or her work or lacked rudimentary knowledge and skills in his or her field, he or she could rightly be declared as incompetent and justly fired. Unfortunately, many tenured professors are horrible teachers and never publish or keep up with the research in their field. Such professors might justifiably be branded as incompetent, although, for better or worse, they are protected by the tenure system. But those who brand a productive scholar and inspiring teacher like Ward Churchill as incompetent because he made controversial or “offensive” Constitutionally protected remarks reveal nothing but their own political motivations and incompetence as citizens who should be cognizant of First Amendment rights. As Governor of Colorado, Bill Owens took an oath to protect the Constitution. By persecuting Ward Churchill for an essay he wrote under the protection of the Constitution, Owen reveals his own incompetence and lack of integrity as a governor and shows himself to be the one who should be fired from his job.

Churchill’s critics self-destruct in their own contradictions. It is a blatant inconsistency for someone to say that they support the First Amendment, but then want to punish someone for exercising First Amendment rights for ideas that they do not like. Whereas Churchill has said nothing that amounts to hate speech, his vituperators routinely spew hate speech against him in the national media. Being a critical and independent thinker rather than a Pavlovian jingoist, Churchill exemplifies what it is to be an American, whereas those trying to silence him and trample on his constitutional rights shame themselves as the real anti-Americans traitors.

The First Amendment equally protects morally “responsible” and “irresponsible” speech, and the Bill Owens and Pat Buchanans of the world are not God-like enough to set the standards of speech for all. The hysterical attack on Churchill eerily evokes the tyranny of the McCarthy era where acts were blacklisted and professors were fired for having even liberal views or showing dissent against state repression. It demonstrates the repressive and hegemonic logic of “US democracy” whereby elites and mass media establish and police the parameters of acceptable discourse. Churchill has become America’s own Salman Rushdie terrorized by the fatwa of the Right.

Clarifying Churchill

It is not a matter of defending Churchill’s views or not, but rather of separating a few objectionable or poorly worded statements (in his hastily written essay) from a political context that gives a legitimate critique of US imperialism. Churchill wrongly viewed the World Trade Center as a military target and absurdly judged everyone killed in the twin towers as “little Eichmanns.” Unlike the October 2002 attack on the USS Cole and perhaps even the 9-11 strike against the Pentagon, flying fully loaded passenger planes into the World Trade Center was a textbook example of terrorism which involves causing physical injury or death (“violence”) to innocent people (“non-combatants”) to further an ideological cause.

Those killed in the twin towers included members of the US military and intelligence agencies directly involved in US imperialism, in addition to men, women, and children who had nothing to do with the military and at best were remotely connected to the US war machine. Churchill indiscriminately labeled every victim a “little Eichmann” to advance the following fallacious argument: (1) social systems of violence and aggression like Nazi Germany cannot run efficiently without the support of bureaucrats and functionaries like Adolph Eichmann; (2) everyone in the WTC worked for the US military or financial regime in some manner, therefore (3) they are all equally as culpable as Eichmann.

The problem with the argument clearly lies in the totalizing term “equally,” the universalization of guilt and blame for US policies, and the untheorized and overly broad interpretation of “non-combatants.” In a strict sense, any citizen of the US, any taxpayer, contributes to the nation’s imperialist and genocidal policies. No one is perfectly pure, innocent, or outside the system—including well-paid, anti-imperialist Colorado Ethnic Studies professors who pay taxes and work for the State. But they do not equally serve the war machine, either in their occupational capacities or in their knowledge about US policies and how their work may potentially serve those ends. Unlike the majority or perhaps all of the victims who perished in the twin towers, Eichmann played a direct, not indirect, role in the Nazi bureaucracy and he had immediate, not dim, knowledge of his role. To see everyone from Bush and Rumsfeld to twin tower janitors, tourists, and passersby as equally culpable combatants is to abandon all powers of moral and logical discrimination. Left unqualified, Churchill’s words can be read as an endorsement of terrorism and mass murder; thus, they had obvious inflammatory potential that the Right exploited to full advantage to launch a new round of Culture Wars.

Whereas Churchill’s ultimate meaning was not always clear in the brevity and rhetoric of his original essay, in a subsequent statement he has attempted to clarify his view and prevent further misunderstanding of many points that were easily misunderstood. Churchill insists he used the “little Eichmanns” epithet to apply only to the “technicians” who, like Eichmann, did not directly kill people but kept the infrastructure of the killing machine working smoothly. “Thus,” he says, “it was obviously not directed to the children, janitors, food service workers, firemen and random passers-by killed in the 9-11 attack.” Whether clarifying or back-peddling, the more limited application remains inaccurate to the extent that the US is not killing its own citizens as German Nazis were, its genocidal policies unfold abroad rather than in at home or bordering countries, and unlike Eichmann US technocrats may be genuinely oblivious to the violent nature of the system for which they work

Right-Wing Nation

“The “Ward Churchill controversy” should not have become a blip on the conservative blogs, let alone a national media story as prominent as the Michael Jackson trial for two weeks. As a part of their ongoing culture wars, the right has vociferously attacked Churchill in order to advance large agendas that include their hostility to radical ideas, the “academic Left,” liberal values, and free speech. The Churchill controversy will soon be resolved one way or the other, but the Right will undoubtedly continue to exploit the issue to go after its real targets: “liberal” or “left” academia and the tenure system that protects free (read: radical) speech.

It is no exaggeration to say that within the second act of the reign of Bush, US society has entered a neo-McCarthyist period based on militant hostility to progressive values. Under the guise of a “war of terror,” Bush has initiated a war on democracy. The Patriot Act; the hysterical reaction to Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”; FCC attacks on “obscenity” in the media; assaults on gay rights; state surveillance of and repression against animal rights, environmental, and anti-war activists; drives to overturn Roe v. Wade; and now the campaign to fire Churchill are some indications of a frightening turn toward tyranny, puritanical restriction, and repression.

The Right has a heart attack over Churchill’s essay, but there was no outrage or talk of firing when the media aired the shocking remarks of three star marine general James Mattis, who commanded Marine expeditions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Before a panel audience in San Diego, Mattis said of Iraqi citizens: “Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people.” Similarly, Alberto Gonzalez, the close friend of Bush and attorney who drafted the policies justifying torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, not only was not fired for his callous violations of international law and humanitarian policies, he was promoted to the highest legal office in the land, Attorney General. And where is the rabid reaction to snarling pro-violence right-wing commentator Ann Coulter whenever she spouts inanities such as, “My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building”?

Churchill’s essay made numerous important points and this country ignores him at its own peril. For his logical transgressions Churchill can be publicly criticized, but they do not warrant being drawn and quartered and losing a tenured position for exercising First Amendment rights. Churchill’s fate will be decided soon enough, but the demise of the Constitution will take a bit longer and will depend on how citizens respond to cases such as this.


Dr. Steven Best is the chair of philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso. His latest book, co-edited with Anthony J. Nocella, is Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals

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