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
Boulder Weekly Feb. 10, 2005

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 abroad.

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 there.

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 die?

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 of death.

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 from it.

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. foreign policy.

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 this fashion.

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 one-directional.

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 it?

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 essence.

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.

Return to Ward Churchill's Essay "Some People Push Back"