The Man in the Maelstrom
Ward Churchill speaks out on his controversial essay,
the media frenzy and what the U.S. can do if it really wants to halt terrorism
By Pamela White
It started when a group of conservative students from Hamilton College
in New York, hoping to block University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill's
scheduled talk at their school, protested an essay Churchill had written on
Sept. 11, 2001. In the essay, titled "Some People Push Back: On the Justice
of Roosting Chickens," Churchill, an American Indian activist and scholar,
framed the terrorists attacks as inevitable, the natural result of years of
oppressive U.S. policies, which he outlined at length. He also compared the
stockbrokers, lawyers and government employees who died in the attacks with
Nazi "technocrat" Adolf Eichmann for their role in supporting U.S. actions
Boulder Weekly Feb. 10, 2005
The students' protest caught the attention of the national corporate media,
which pounced on Churchill and his controversial essay with rabid ferocity.
The result was a national furor. For two weeks now, the corporate media has
controlled the story, fanning the flames of anger and even questioning Churchill's
ethnicity. Paula Zahn interviewed Churchill - but barely let him speak. MSNBC,
Fox and MTV carried the story. Denver talk radio couldn't get enough of the
topic, one radio host declaring Churchill's essay treasonous and suggesting
that Churchill be executed.
Media attention prompted reactions from members of Congress, who contacted
Gov. Bill Owens, demanding a response. Owens, in turn, condemned Churchill's
writings and called for university officials to fire him. The Colorado General
Assembly then picked up the issue and passed a resolution renouncing Churchill's
point of view, and the CU Board of Regents held a special meeting and apologized
to the nation for the essay. The regents are now investigating Churchill to
determine whether he can be fired.
But, although pundits and politicians have quoted from Churchill's writings
at length, often taking the words out of context, the man in the middle of
the maelstrom has been given very little room in the press to respond to his
detractors. Boulder Weekly sat down with Churchill in his Boulder home on
Monday, Feb. 7, to talk in depth about his essays, the media frenzy surrounding
him and what the United States can do if it truly wishes to end terrorism.
To read Churchill's essay free of media spin, go to
Boulder Weekly: What were you doing on Sept. 11 when you first heard
about the terrorist attacks?
Ward Churchill: I was on the word processor working on an extended
essay on American Indians in films, which I had been working on for some time...
The phone rang. It was Kathleen Cleaver. She said, "Is your TV on?" I said,
"No." She said, "Well, turn it on, because a plane just hit the World Trade
Center." So probably within five minutes from the time the first plane hit
I watched it in real time.
I suppose like everybody else, I was stunned... I knew it was real, but
still there was this disbelief thing. And to be fair about it, that was probably
affecting everyone, including the people who had set up the cameras and were
filming the thing as it occurred - probably more so for them because they
were watching it for real.
But it struck me even before the first building came down that this was
already being framed. It was proclaimed to be "senseless" before the first
building came down, and senseless means "without purpose," and that seemed
absolutely absurd to me on its face. How could they possibly know? There
are planes being hijacked all over the country. Two of them have hit the
World Trade Center. One of them has hit the Pentagon. There's another one
loose. But whoever's doing this has no purpose.
And then there's the outrage: How can this happen? Well, there's various
ways you could take it, like, "How did they penetrate the air defense?" But
I don't think that's the nature of the question. That was not my sense. It
was more like, "What could possibly provoke somebody to do this?" OK, that
question and, "Why do they hate us?"
All of that [struck me] - both the framing of it as being senseless and
the amazingly stupid questions as to what would provoke somebody to do this.
BW: My first thought when I saw what had happened was, "Somebody
is going to get their ass kicked."
WC: Well, it occurred to me at the time that somebody was finally
kicking U.S. ass for the way the U.S. had been comporting itself. Rather than,
"Why do they hate us?" my initial response was, "How could they not?" And
as to who was doing it, the problem is how many contenders there are out
Well, it was about that time - it was the early afternoon - I got a call
from the woman who was the editor of Dark Night Field Notes... She said, "We
need a from-the-gut response on this, and we need it in time to post it tomorrow."
BW: So the essay started as a "from-the-gut" response. What were
your thoughts going into it?
WC: This was absurd what was being said. No one's calling [the reporters]
on it for describing it as senseless. You've got a little contradiction in
packaging here going on between the official news sources who are proclaiming
it senseless and then the more official officials - the official officials
- who are proclaiming it things like, "They did it because they hate our freedom,"
and other really profound and insightful things of that sort. It can't both
be senseless and for a reason at the same time.
I don't think I was the only one with a different response from the mainstream.
It just happens to be the way I framed it. Where that begins is borrowing
from Malcolm X's thing about the chickens coming home to roost.
The essay "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens" was
written on Sept. 11 and then posted to the Internet that night. Churchill
started with Malcolm X's famous quote, likened the roosting chickens to returning
ghosts and asked who those ghosts might be.
Well, I see a half-million dead Iraqi children for starters, children that
Madeline Albright confirmed she was aware of. This was UN data [on the impact
of U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq] in 1996 when she went on 60 Minutes and
said, "Yeah, we're aware of it, and we've determined that it's worth the price."
It's worth the price of somebody else's children to compel their government
to do what George Bush had issued as the marching orders to the planet in
1991, which is: "The world has to understand that what we say goes."
What we say goes - that's freedom. Do what you're told. And if you don't,
basically the way this works out is we'll starve your children to death.
A communiqué from al-Qaeda, in which the relatively unknown group
claimed responsibility for the attacks, would later confirm that the plight
of Iraqi children was primary on the terrorists' list of grievances against
the United States.
[In the essay,] I went from mentioning Iraqi children to Iraqis over all
- the children being a half million, there being another half-million dead
adults in a population of about 20 million in a short period of time and not
during the war... I mentioned the Palestinians, particularly the children
in the Intifada, as a direct consequence of U.S. priorities and U.S. support
to those who are doing it to them. I think I made a little mention of a bunch
of Panamanians who ended up in a trench who were reported as not having died
until the trench was opened up and there they were lying under the quick lime.
I think I talked about something on the order of 200,000 uplands Mayan Indians
in Guatemala. I think I talked about a whole bunch of dead people in El Salvador
and Nicaragua, killed under false premises... I think I talked about people
who had been burned alive at Dresden. The nuclear bombings [of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki], since we're on the subject of weapons of mass destruction...
Back to the Filipinos, back to the turn of the century. I think we're talking
about at a minimum 500,000 to 600,000 people and maybe well over a million
in the name of liberating them from their colonial masters and turning them
into a U.S. colony... Which takes us into the Indian wars and Wounded Knee
and that whole series, all the way back to the Wappingers, the guys who supposedly
sold the Dutch the island [of Manhattan] for beads and trinkets, which they
didn't. They gave them permission to use the tip of the island as a port facility
for trade, which was to the advantage of both. The Dutch falsely proclaimed
it to be a sale, and when the Indians objected, they sent out a military
expedition and resolved the problem by basically butchering all of them...
All of those chickens came home to roost [on 9/11], because there had never
really been a response in-kind in all that entire grisly history. It was sort
of manifested in the symbol of those twin towers at the foot of something
called Wall Street. And Wall Street takes its name from the enclosure of the
slave compound for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. So now there's a bunch
of those ghosts, too. All the symbolism is confluent [at Ground Zero]...
Churchill then discussed the concept of collective responsibility and
the notion that some of those who worked in the World Trade Center were not
only aware of, but participants in actions that caused harm and suffering
abroad. Such events could not occur without broad support from the American
public, he said.
Since Madeline Albright said that on 60 Minutes, [the suffering in Iraq]
could hardly be mysterious to the people in the buildings that would be hit.
They just flat considered it irrelevant. Or they embraced it. These aren't
exactly centers of organizing opposition to U.S. policy.
I don't say they had detailed information. They were not concerned enough
to gather it. They simply embraced it. They applauded it. They voted for it.
But they're not innocent of it at the same time.
How do you end up participating in this process and being proud and triumphalist
about this process and making your vocation the participation in and proper
functioning of that system and be innocent at the same time? And that takes
me to the Eichmann comment.
BW: Your Eichmann comparison seems to be the thing that has upset
people the most.
WC: Oh, yes... I said specifically the comparison to Eichmann devolved
upon the technicians of empire. Is there some definition you can give me where
a food-service worker or a child or a janitor pushing a broom is a technician
of empire? I wasn't talking about that, clearly. That's the only point that's
been raised. "How can you say that an 18-month-old baby girl on a plane was
comparable to Eichmann?"
Well, the fact of the matter is, I never said that. To use Pentagon-speak,
that would be the collateral damage... I don't know that they had any specific
intent to kill everyone that was there. In order to get at the target, the
dead bystanders were "worth the price," to quote directly from Madeline Albright.
[The terrorists] used the exact same logic used by Pentagon planners and U.S.
diplomats - "This is an unavoidable consequence of getting at the target."
If there's somebody to blame, following the logic that's used now, it would
be the people who put a CIA office in the World Trade Center or put command
and control infrastructure of other sorts in there. It's always "their" fault.
It's always Saddam's fault. He situated an intelligence office in a hospital...
That was the justification for bombing the hospital. Well, if you're going
to apply that rule, it's going to come back to you. By enunciated Pentagon
rules, [the World Trade Center] was a legitimate target.
I don't accept the legitimacy. I'm feeding it back to [the American public,
and saying], "How does this feel?" I contest the legitimacy straight down
the line. But if you're going to do it to other people on these pretexts and
pretend it's OK, then you can't complain when it comes back to you in the
same form. That's the point.
BW: So you're not saying the people who died on 9/11 deserved to
WC: I'm not a judge. I want the whole goddamned process to stop,
you know? That extends to these collateral damages... I certainly don't embrace
that. I didn't judge Eichmann. I didn't impose the death penalty. You can
adduce that if Eichmann is worthy of death, because of what he had done in
arranging train schedules and such, then these other Eichmanns are worthy
But I didn't pronounce the sentence. I merely made the comparison. I've
pointed this out when I've actually gone on with these attack dogs: You show
me where I said it was justified. You're drawing conclusions about what I
said. I wanted you to think about it. I wanted you to critically engage.
I wanted you to draw conclusions, but I didn't say that. I made the comparison
based on an analysis that I believe to be true. You draw your own conclusions
Churchill then lamented that one central point of this issue continues
to be overlooked by the U.S. media and the public.
We have yet to have anybody address the issue of the Iraqi children. It
always comes back to the same, "But what about these families?"
I want to say this: I have an abiding sorrow for the collateral damage on
9/11, and I never compared them to Eichmann. They were collateral damage -
based on a set of rules imposed by the United States, to which I object with
every fiber of my being. And I am mightily sorry about the janitors and the
food-service workers and the kids. I mourn the kids in particular. They never
had a chance to do anything. But I don't mourn them proportionately more
than I do the half-million Iraqi children. And the idea of diverting all
of this back to those 3,000 Americans, as if the rest were of no more consequence
or value than toilet paper, is exactly the problem I was trying to define.
They're illustrating it perfectly.
I even mourn the Eichmanns in a certain sense. I mourn the fact that they
were dehumanized without even knowing it, active participants in their own
dehumanization to the point where they lost their souls and their humanity
altogether; that the calculus of profit outweighed the value of the lives
of children who lived in misery and died young as a result, and they considered
it the way it ought to be. That is a sorrowful situation. And I'm trying to
penetrate that veil and rearrange the consciousness so that there can be
a different outcome.
BW: A lot of people have opinions about your essays without reading
them, so I thought we could go over the main points. One point that struck
me was your thought that the attacks of Sept. 11 were inevitable, given U.S.
WC: That's basically how I framed it - as natural and inevitable.
And I'm validated in that thesis at this point by the nature of the reaction
to my essay. What I said, essentially, was if you treat anyone this way, this
is going to be the response. It's natural, and it's inevitable as long as
they're human beings. If you don't think they're going to respond that way,
you're declaring them not human. Arabs will respond that way. Americans will
respond that way no less.
And you might note that all of these death threats [I've received], and
the forced cancellations of gigs and stuff, has been under threat of violence.
And that's terrorism. That's precisely the framing of it. Now it's at a lower
level than 9/11, obviously, and I'm not complaining about it. I anticipated
it, because I believe that anybody - anybody - who feels that their loved
ones have been slaughtered in something approximating a military fashion,
and that this is considered absolutely inconsequential, that they are demeaned
and degraded and devalued to the point of being called something like "collateral
damage" on top of the death, are going to have a compulsion to respond in
Now Americans, or some of them, perceive that those loved ones and what
they symbolize, have been devalued and degraded and demeaned by me, and the
response is identical, with its level adjusted for scale and a few things
like that. Sept. 11 was a solitary event, a singular event. In the context
of the people who apparently did 9/11, it's a continuous [series of events].
There were 3,000-odd people whose lives were taken on 9/11, as compared to
a half a million Iraqi children, another half a million Iraqi adults, how
many hundred thousands of Palestinians living in refugee camps for generations
and being consumed by U.S. arms, 3.2 million Indo-Chinese and so on and so
on and so on. OK, we adjust a little for scale and duration here, and, actually,
this is an overreaction on the part of the public here. They're not entitled
to this terrorist response. But of course the reality of how human functioning
occurs, this would be the natural, inevitable and entirely predictable response.
They just validated my thesis.
If you want to come to grips with terrorism you have first to understand
it... Try feeling. See what it feels like. Maybe then you can understand it.
I've done nothing. I've killed no one. All I've done is make a pronouncement
comparable to what is done every day at the Pentagon with regard to massive
civilian fatalities here, there and everywhere... I did a framing that was
comparable in its purported insensitivity to what the Pentagon does as business
as usual with no complaint at all from the American public, and the response
is a terrorist response. Now that we understand it, maybe we can fix it. But
first you have really to understand it and not pretend it's something "other,"
alien, psychotic. Well, maybe it's psychotic, but the psychosis is generated
by tangible causes.
[The terrorists] were sending a message. That's my view. And it's, "You're
not going to do this stuff with impunity any more. If you continue to do it,
there are going to be costs and consequences to you. It's not going to be
And the American public has long since convinced itself that it can act
however it wants in the world for personal benefit, for profit, for whatever,
or have it done in their name, and claim innocence and impunity from any
consequences at the same time.
Excuse me. I challenge that. You're not innocent if you're a participant,
if you support it, if you embrace it, if you vote for it, if you revel in
it, if you celebrate it. You're complicit, just like the Germans.
Which raises an issue that is thrown at me: [People say to me,] "Well, you
pay taxes, and you do this, and you do that."
Yo, I've spent the entirety of my adult life in full-fledged opposition
to this, and I've never deviated for a moment, and that said, no, I am not
innocent, because I have not been successful in reaching your brain-dead
self and making you act in a different way... This applies to me just as
much as to anybody else. It applies to my family.
BW: How many death threats have you received?
WC: That's hard to say. There are 3,200 unopened e-mails in my queue
right now. I opened some 900, but became overburdened... As for the effectiveness
of the tactic, if you're going to swamp me with "fuck you" e-mails, they're
not going to get read because I simply can't read them, so you would have
done better with 300 of them than 3,000 of them. But interspersed in there
there's about 130 that I'm aware of [that are death threats]. Most of them
aren't credible death threats. They're people blowing their intellect out
their ass, as usual.
BW: What are you trying to accomplish with these writings?
WC: I'm trying to engender a consciousness that leads people to take
responsibility for affecting change. You get this rabid denial going on, but
the whole context of interpretation in this is a rabid denial of reality.
BW: Not only are some people attacking your words. They're attacking
your position at the university, your pedigree, your person?
WC: - the tenure system, the rules of academic freedom, the ability
to make a dissident statement - all of that in the name of freedom. A student
is arrested for trying to speak at a regents meeting, revolving upon a question
of free speech. I guess that telegraphs [the regents'] position on it, doesn't
BW: Why do people focus on the issue of your Indian heritage?
WC: Everybody knows that this was all Indian land. Everybody knows
in some general sense what happened to Indians... The very existence of Indians
is a reminder of the theft of a continent and genocide... The problem is that
anyone who is identified as or identifies as Indian stands in a position to
put that back in people's faces. They've got to destroy it. There's a certain
resonance to it by an Indian saying it, as opposed to someone else saying
it... They have to invalidate you and make it go away.
BW: This essay was written three-and-a-half years ago, and yet we
have the Board of Regents calling a special meeting last week. If you really
did do something atrocious, aren't they a bit behind the times?
WC: It's three-and-a-half years old. It's been recycled. It's been
refined and annotated and published as the lead essay in a book that is the
2004 runner-up for the Gustavus Myer award for writing on human rights. And
for that they would apologize.
BW: How did that feel when they apologized to the entire nation for
something you wrote?
WC: You can always smile. The whole nation was waiting with baited
breath for an apology from the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado.
Yeah, I'm sure. The University of Colorado did not write this piece. I don't
think anyone was accusing them of endorsing it. The regents are responsible
not for taking positions like this, but for guaranteeing my right to take
it. That's their job. They might not understand their job, but that in fact
is their job. And it is legally the terms of their job. There are a stated
set of rules, the rules of the regents of the University of Colorado, which
are the binding ingredients of my contract, and it says unequivocally I have
not only the right, but in certain respects it could be interpreted to say
that I have the obligation to do exactly what it was that I did. And so I
did my job, and for that they're apologizing and threatening to fire me. That's
exactly the situation. Why? Because they disagree with it. They have a different
political point of view. And this comes down explicitly as political repression.
BW: Does this raise concerns that we might be looking at open season
on dissident academics?
WC: That's exactly what it is. It's been as much as stated by Newt
Gingrich and David Horowitz and others, that this is the "kick-off." I'm the
kick-off. I didn't select this position. I got selected for whatever set
of reasons they had. If you want to know why they selected me as opposed to
30 other targets they might have selected, you'd have to ask them. I think
they thought I'd be a vulnerable target. Sorry, guys. Miscalculation there.
It's the opening round of a general purge of the academy of people who say
things they find to be politically unacceptable.
Consequently this furor in the media over what is basically, even in their
own framing, a backwater issue in a third-tier university - that's their description
- in an area that nobody pays any attention to. It's been so concerted and
relentless. I mean I was the story last week.
BW: You were on MTV news.
WC: I was on MTV news? I can't keep track of it. All I know is that
I was on MSNBC with Scarborough and with O'Reilly. Paula Zahn did me a wonderful
service. She pissed off people who flatly disagreed with me with her attack-dog
routine. She'd ask a question. She'd refuse to allow me to answer it. She
wasn't doing an interview; she was doing theater. It was apparent to everyone.
It was so transparent that 80-year-old middle Americans were saying, "She's
a bitch. Let him talk, man."
BW: What about the Denver talk-radio host who accused you of committing
treason and suggested you be executed?
WC: Do you suppose I'm going to end up in one of those third-world
concentration camps down there in Guantanamo Bay?
BW: Do you think the controversy will blow over?
WC: I don't think it's going to blow over, but it does have the capacity
to reframe my agenda. I wanted to talk about what it was I said, not my right
to say it. But I've suddenly become the poster boy for academic freedom. This
is something I can't back up an inch on. I simply cannot.
BW: Did you resign your position as chairman of the ethnic studies
department or were you forced to resign? I've heard you say before that it
was a job you never wanted.
WC: I didn't want the administrative responsibility in the first
place. No one asked me for my resignation. I resigned. I availed myself of
the opportunity, actually. That's pretty well known. I had someone come down
from sociology immediately after that, saying, "Man, that was pretty slick.
If they wanted to punish you, they would have assigned you five more years
of this." I got out early.
BW: You've gotten a fair amount of support from CU students and faculty.
WC: I've gotten support from the AAUP, which has entered an unequivocal
and elegant statement of support. That does not mean they agree with my position.
That's not the issue here. Not everyone who supports me agrees with me...
The society of American law teachers, all 900 law professors have signed on
to it. The ACLU here [supports me], the ACLU in the New York Times today and
so on. So, no, I'm not without support on that issue. And I'm actually not
without support in terms of the analysis [in the essays].
BW: Isn't the real story in all of this the response to your essays?
WC: The larger framing was articulated by one of the regents, Tom
Lucero, at the regents meeting the other night: I want a justification for
the existence of whole departments. I want to review the tenure system altogether.
I want every course justified to my satisfaction.
BW: That's not academic freedom. That's a dictatorial response?
WC: - from someone who could not possibly have the competence to
assess the validity of these things. How could Tom Lucero possibly have assimilated
the knowledge to pass scholarly judgment on the individual courses and their
content and the scholarship that attends them in all these different areas?
This is transparently clear: Anything that he doesn't like, whether he knows
anything about it or not, is to be gone. He has announced - telegraphed -
the fact that he doesn't like anything having to do with cultural studies,
ethnic studies, dissident political studies, gay rights. None of that has
anything to do with proper scholarship in his mind, not that he knows a goddamned
thing about any of it. And it's not that he's a particularly malevolent individual.
He's representative of the whole. That's the mentality that goes into this.
This is a book-burning exercise. It's a stifling of political discourse.
BW: You've written extensively about what you consider the problem
to be in this country. So what's the solution from your point of view?
WC: The most obvious thing that I adduce is that you're going to
have change the way you value [other people]. You're gong to have to stop
denigrating, demeaning and devaluing them to the point of toilet paper. That
would go further toward alleviating the potential for terrorist acts in the
United States than any - any - number of tiger cages, torture techniques,
investments in the security apparatus, training Delta Force clones and all
the rest of that.
But the question then is, how do you communicate that you actually are valuing
them? Try obeying the law. The solution is adherence to the law to allow other
people first to survive and then to survive with some degree of human dignity.
If you're actually in conformity with the requirements of the laws of war
and international law, you will not be piling up little brown carcasses like
this and the whole reason for the [terrorist] response abates. It's a call
for law enforcement, and that's what's really infuriating them - the idea
that the United States is not legally entitled to unilateral discourse at
its own discretion, cannot exempt itself from compliance, the idea that it
might have to buckle up, it's the law - just like everybody else. That's what
really set them off.
The self-exemption from the requirements of the fundamental laws of human
rights and the laws of war is the Nazi signature. That is Nazi diplomacy in
BW: Other people have made many of the same arguments you have made.
What's more controversial about your words?
WC: I go for the gut. That's my speaking strategy. I go for the gut
to provoke a response. And interestingly, if it hadn't been for the right-wingers
making this a big issue, I would have failed spectacularly. But I can't deal
with miserable, starving children in some nice detached, objective way. To
me that's the essence of the Nazi zeitgeist - being able to do that to other
people. I cannot do it. I will not do it, and fuck them if they think they're
going to force me to do it.