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In defense of Ward Churchill

I should have known better when I first read the headlines claiming that Ward Churchill had compared Sept. 11 victims to Nazis.

Instead, I believed the mainstream media and was deeply disappointed in an activist I had admired since high school. “How could he say that?” I wondered as I remembered interning in New York in the summer of 2002. Even almost a year later, people in downtown Manhattan were still shaken and their kids were still having nightmares. I was sure Ward Churchill had gone too far and destroyed his credibility as an activist and social critic.

Even when it seemed clear to me that Ward Churchill had lost it, I had friends sending me links to the full text of his comments on Sept. 11 and explanations of why he said what he did. My own knowledge of Ward Churchill also caused me to doubt the media’s claims. Churchill fought in Vietnam, he has spoken out eloquently and defiantly against the oppression of Native peoples, and he never hesitates to ask the tough questions that desperately need to be asked. I began to wonder if I had missed something even as CNN and Fox News were telling me that Ward Churchill wanted more Sept. 11’s and supported terrorism against civilians.

After reviewing Churchill’s statements and interrogating my own conscience, I have now concluded that Ward Churchill was right to raise these painful questions. He was right to raise them and in response our country has demonized him in an attempt to avoid answering his difficult questions. Churchill has received numerous death threats, he has had swastikas spray-painted on his truck and institutions have told him that they could not guarantee his safety at speaking events. The price of truth is high these days.

While Ward Churchill has been hung out to dry at the University of Colorado, other scandals have received little attention. Football recruits are allegedly shown pornographic films and promised easy sex if they join the school’s team. Three women have claimed they were raped or assaulted by University of Colorado football players but school officials have yet to take any real disciplinary action. Churchill’s words may have been controversial, but it reveals a very twisted set of priorities when controversial words cause more alarm than rape and violence.

I am defending Churchill for many reasons, but the first of which is that Churchill never advocated terrorism against civilians—in fact, he was condemning terrorism against innocent people by pointing out the cruelty of our own military targeting. Using the logic of the U.S. military, the World Trade Center and Pentagon would be considered “military targets” because they housed military and intelligence offices. Suddenly, the janitors, children, and secretaries become unfortunate “collateral damage.” We often claim to minimize civilian deaths, but al Qaeda could argue that they made the same efforts. After all, they didn’t target the Mall of America, a NASCAR race, or Disneyland. They aimed for the centers of our military and economic power. When they did this, they lifted a page right from our own playbook. The defense of such targeting is of course, morally abhorrent. This was Churchill’s point, not that it is acceptable to kill civilians.

The second reason why I am defending Churchill is that he forced us to ask ourselves if we have a duty to refuse to participate in oppressive systems. On this point, Churchill admits that he himself is implicated in the oppression of others. As an academic, he has a certain amount of power and he also benefits to a certain extent from the wealth of our country. All of us are in a sense hypocritical if we criticize others for mindlessly contributing to the suffering of others without examining our own lives and choices. Is it acceptable to work for a company like Lockheed Martin, even though you know they are a part of the military industrial complex and profit from war? Is it possible to work for the CIA and not implicate yourself in the torture or repression of others? Can you put a sticker against Alaskan oil drilling on your car?

My third and final reason for defending Churchill is that his courageous questions should compel us to take action on behalf of oppressed innocent people around the world.

In a recent article, Churchill wrote that the “bottom line of my argument is that the best and perhaps only way to prevent Sept. 11 style attacks on the U.S. is for American citizens to compel their government to comply with the rule of law.” Churchill believes this is an obligation that befalls all of us, including himself. The tragic and devastating terrorism on Sept. 11 gave us a firsthand experience of what the rest of the world has been suffering for too many years. There is no possible justification for the maiming of children or the slaughter of innocent human beings. We now know is no such thing as collateral damage when the people are your own. Perhaps we should question if such a concept should even exist in the first place.

I know that many people would still disagree with Ward Churchill even if they understood his actual position, but I think we should at least be discussing his real argument and not the sensational headlines. Do we desire universal definitions of “innocent” or “civilian”? On what moral basis can we have one set of definitions for ourselves and another for the rest of the world? And what does it reveal about us when we viciously attack those who dare to even ask such questions?

Brigdet Newman is a Trinity senior. Her column appears every other Thursday.

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