Disingenuous Controversy: Responses to Ward Churchill's 9/11 Essay

Article excerpt

At the end of January 2005, controversy (1) erupted concerning an online essay that University of Colorado Ethnic Studies Professor, Ward Churchill, authored on September 11, 2001, entitled "'Some People Push Back': On the Justice of Roosting Chickens." In this essay, Churchill argues that U.S. foreign policy created the conditions of resentment that made the 9/11 attacks a reasonable response to U.S. imperial policy. Given a history of intervention into other countries, including the 1991 bombing of Iraq's infrastructure, and U.S.-imposed sanctions (which he labeled a genocide), Churchill (2001) muses that the attackers' response was proportional. Their four assaults with explosives represented "about 1% of the 50,000 bombs the Pentagon announced were rained on Baghdad alone during the [first] Gulf War" ("On Matters of Proportion and Intent" section, [paragraph] 1). The attacks, according to Churchill, simply gave Americans "a tiny dose of their own medicine" ("On Matters of Proportion and Intent" section, [paragraph] 3).

Although his essay contained numerous arguments, the segment that triggered intense reaction appears about one third of the way through, in which Churchill questions the claim that the attackers targeted "innocent civilians." Churchill argues that, according to U.S. targeting strategy, the World Trade Center was not a civilian target but, instead, was filled with people who "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" ("They did not license themselves to 'target innocent civilians'" section, [paragraph] 1). Churchill labels those who were killed on 9/11 "little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers" ("They did not license themselves to 'target innocent civilians'" section, [paragraph] 1).

When this essay appeared online on September 12, the response was minimal (e.g., Hemingway, 2001). Churchill was scheduled to speak in late November 2001, at rallies in Burlington and the University of Vermont, as part of protests against the bombing of Afghanistan, when a reporter discovered the essay. Many protest organizers indicated that they wanted to revoke his invitation to speak, although none did; one group withdrew its sponsorship of a rally, however, rather than be associated with Churchill. Little or no discussion followed this lone incident, and Churchill continued to lecture around the country.

Then, on January 26, 2005, more than 40 months after the essay was published, bloggers learned that Churchill would appear on a panel entitled "Limits of Dissent?" on February 3 at Hamilton College, a liberal arts college in central New York State. His "Roosting Chickens" essay was (re)discovered and became the focus of nationwide attention. On Friday, January 28, the top story on Fox's The O'Reilly Factor focused on Churchill's essay and his scheduled appearance at Hamilton (O'Reilly, 2005a). The controversy expanded with additional regional, national and international news coverage. Stories appeared in The Denver Post (Harsanyi, 2005; Merritt & Pankratz, 2005), The New York Times (York, 2005), the Rocky Mountain News (Ensslin, 2005), and continued on The O'Reilly Factor (O'Reilly, 2005b, 2005c, 2005d, 2005e, 2005f, 2005g, 2005h, 2005i, 2005j). On February 1, Hamilton College President J. H. Stewart (2005) canceled the panel, citing "[c]redible threats of violence" as the reason. Two days later, the Colorado Board of Regents convened in special session and ordered a 30-day University of Colorado-Boulder internal review to determine whether "Professor Churchill's conduct, including his speech, provide any grounds for dismissal for cause," assuming such a dismissal would not infringe on his First Amendment rights (DiStefano, 2005, [paragraph] 11). Later, this review was extended to examine charges of research misconduct. …