By Justyn Dillingham
George Orwell once said that if freedom of speech means anything, it means the freedom to tell people what they don’t want to hear.
This is not the kind of maxim that would have endeared Orwell to some Americans, especially those who are currently roasting Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor whose essay about Sept. 11 has sparked a firestorm of controversy.
Churchill’s essay, “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” (a reference to Malcolm X’s infamous remark that John F. Kennedy’s murder was a case of “the chickens coming home to roost”) argues that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were in direct retaliation for crimes committed by the United States, and that they should be understood as an act of war, not wanton killing of “innocents.”
The people killed inside the Pentagon, Churchill wrote, were “military targets.”
As for those killed in the World Trade Center, he continues: “Let’s get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they 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,” he concluded.
Though the essay was written right after Sept. 11, it attracted little attention until Churchill was recently scheduled to speak at New York’s Hamilton College, and the editor in chief of the student newspaper there found the essay online and published a story about it. The outrage was immediate.
Churchill quickly hastened to explain that he had meant only to refer to the “technocrats” (whom he also referred to as “little Eichmanns”) working in the WTC, not the numerous people who had nothing to do with the U.S. policy he deplores, such as the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children caused over the last decade by U.S. sanctions against that country.
It was too little, too late. In the resulting furor, Churchill wound up resigning his position as chair of his department. Colorado Governor Bill Owens even called for Churchill to resign from the university altogether.
“No one wants to infringe on Mr. Churchill’s right to express himself,” Owens wrote. “But we are not compelled to accept his pro-terrorist views at state taxpayer subsidy nor under the banner of the University of Colorado.”
The basic thrust of Churchill’s essay isn’t particularly new: Noam Chomsky made a similar point after Sept. 11, and attracted similar criticism.
But Churchill’s statements are so blunt and unapologetic that they seem to have attracted criticism for their tone as much as their content.
Churchill is certainly guilty of expressing his argument in a remarkably insensitive way. His remarks about the Sept. 11 victims seem little more than a deliberate attempt to shock people noticing of what he says.
His conclusions are also questionable. While he is right to be appalled by the terrible results of U.S. sanctions against Iraq, it is preposterous to claim that the terrorist attacks were a “natural” response to it, as he does. As attacks aimed largely at civilians, they were inhuman atrocities by any standards.
None of this means that he should be fired or forced to resign.
If one man is fired for expressing a controversial opinion, how long before other colleges around the country decide to follow suit and get rid of every instructor who creates an academic stir?
Freedom of speech was obviously pretty important to the authors of the Constitution, since it was the first thing they decided to guarantee in the Bill of Rights.
More than two centuries later, that amendment continues to thrive despite the endless efforts of countless would-be censors to undermine it. As arguably the most important right Americans have, it should be valued.
We don’t have to like Ward Churchill or agree with what he says, but suggesting that he should be fired for expressing his opinion is, to use a phrase that has been thrown at the man himself many times over the last week or two – downright un-American.