It started when a group of conservative students from Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., 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 terrorist 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 media, which pounced on Churchill and his controversial essay with rabid ferocity. The result was a national furor. For 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. Talk radio couldn't get enough of the topic, with one radio host declaring Churchill's essay treasonous and suggesting that Churchill be executed.
Media attention prompted reactions from members of Congress, who contacted Colorado 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. I sat down with Churchill in his Boulder home 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.
Pamela White: 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.
PW: 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."
PW: So the essay started as a "from-the-gut" response. What were your thoughts?
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 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 Madeleine Albright confirmed she was aware of. This was U.N. 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. …
[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 Madeleine 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.
PW: 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 Madeleine 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.
PW: So you're not saying the people who died on Sept. 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. …
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 Sept. 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. …
PW: 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 Sept. 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 Sept. 11, it's a continuous [series of events]. There were 3,000-odd people whose lives were taken on Sept. 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. …
[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. …
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. …
PW: 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]. …
PW: What are you trying to accomplish with these writings?
WC: I'm trying to engender a consciousness that leads people to take responsibility for effecting change. You get this rabid denial going on, but the whole context of interpretation in this is a rabid denial of reality.
PW: 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?
PW: 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.
PW: This essay was written three and a half years ago, and yet we have the Board of Regents recently calling a special meeting. 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 Myers Award for writing on human rights. And for that they would apologize.