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The Justice of Roosting Chickens: Ward Churchill Speaks

StoryFebruary 18, 2005
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The Governor of Colorado has called for his “termination.” Fox’s Bill O’Reilly has attacked him consistently for weeks. He says he won’t apologize and he won’t back down. We speak with Ward Churchill, the professor at the center of the controversy over free speech and academic freedom on college campuses. [includes rush transcript]

We take a look at a controversy at the University of Colorado that has captured national headlines and has sparked a debate about academic freedom and free speech on college campuses nationwide. At the center of the controversy is Ward Churchill, a professor in the Ethnic Studies department at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Churchill is a well-known activist with the American Indian Movement and author of a number of books on genocide against Native Americans and the US government’s COINTELPRO program.

The current controversy began in February with an article published on the front page of the Hamilton College newspaper, The Spectator. The College, which is located in upstate New York, had invited Professor Churchill to speak at the school in the beginning of February. The article highlighted statements Churchill made in an essay about the September 11th attacks. The essay was called “Some People Push Back; on the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” Among other things, the article said that many of the people killed in the Pentagon and the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 were not innocent civilians.

The passage that received the most attention was Churchill’s labeling of the people described as a “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire” as “little Eichmanns.”

After the article in the school newspaper was published, some Hamilton professors began to call for the college to rescind professor Churchill’s invitation. Others defended his right to free speech. The controversy quickly spread outside of Hamilton, with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News repeatedly attacking Churchill on his television program. On Feb. 1st, Colorado Governor Bill Owens wrote a letter to the university calling for Churchill’s resignation. Owens also made the same call on The O’Reilly Factor.

  • Excerpt from The O’Reilly Factor with Gov. Bill Owens, February 7, 2005.

That same week, The University of Colorado Board of Regents voted to review all of Churchill’s speeches and writings in order to determine whether there is cause for his dismissal. And two days before Churchill was scheduled to speak, Hamilton College withdrew the invitation citing security concerns. Interestingly, the panel that Hamilton had originally asked Professor Churchill to be on, was titled The Limits of Dissent. On February 8, Churchill spoke about the controversy to a packed crowd at the University of Colorado. Ward Churchill joins us on the phone from Colorado.

  • Ward Churchill, on the line from Boulder.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Governor Owens made the same call on the O’Reilly Factor.

BILL O’REILLY: This is such an embarrassment for your state, which is a changing state, but it’s a traditional state, and this guy’s embarrassed Colorado from Trinidad up to Greeley.


BILL O’REILLY: And over to, you know, Steamboat Springs. Everybody is —

GOVERNOR BILL OWENS: You have been here.

BILL O’REILLY: Yeah. They’re like appalled.

GOVERNOR BILL OWENS: It is embarrassing.

BILL O’REILLY: How could this happen?

GOVERNOR BILL OWENS: And that’s why we’re trying to deal with it. Now obviously you know tenure laws and you know the First Amendment and we respect the law and we respect the First Amendment, so we’re trying to address this, and the Regents are, by going through that Rule-of-Law process to make sure that when they make the decision, and I’m hoping it’s to terminate him, that they can have it withstand court scrutiny.

BILL O’REILLY: Do you think?

GOVERNOR BILL OWENS: I mean, how far have we gone in this country that you’re able to call for more murder, call for more 9/11s, say that the United States should cease to exist and that we sit around and we’re going to have to spend probably several years going through a process to — so that this guy can’t speak as a professor of the University of Colorado.

BILL O’REILLY: And he’s also making a $100,000, or close to it.


BILL O’REILLY: Of taxpayer money. One more thing. I have, or, I’m revising my opinion based upon this new information that he thinks more 9/11s are necessary, but last week I said, look, don’t fire him, because the message it sends to the enemies is, we oppress people we disagree with. Our country is strong enough to put up with even him, but now he seems to have gone over another line. You know, if he is calling for the murder of American citizen, you simply can’t have him.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bill O’Reilly and Colorado Governor Bill Owens on The O’Reilly Factor, February 7th. That same week, the University of Colorado Board of Regents voted to review all of Churchill’s speeches and writings in order to determine whether there’s cause for his dismissal. And two days before Churchill was scheduled to speak, Hamilton College withdrew the invitation citing security concerns. Interestingly, the panel that Hamilton had originally asked Professor Churchill to be on was titled, “The limits of dissent.” We turn now to Professor Ward Churchill, joining us from Boulder, Colorado. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Good to have you with us. Well, can you respond to this firestorm now? But I’d like you to start off by you explaining your comments that have become well known now around the issue of the technocrats at the World Trade Center being like little Eichmanns.

WARD CHURCHILL: Well it goes to Hannah Arendt’s notion of Eichmann, the thesis that he embodied the banality of evil. That she had gone to the Eichmann trial to confront the epitome of evil in her mind and expected to encounter something monstrous, and what she encountered instead was this nondescript little man, a bureaucrat, a technocrat, a guy who arranged train schedules, who, as it turned out, ultimately didn’t even agree with the policy that he was implementing, but performed the technical functions that made the holocaust possible, at least in the efficient manner that it occurred, in a totally amoral and soulless way, purely on the basis of excelling at the function and getting ahead within the system that he found himself. He was a good family man, in his way. He was loved by his children, participated in civic activities, was in essence the good German. And she [Arendt] said, therein lies the evil. It wasn’t that Eichmann was a Nazi or a high official within Nazidom, although he was in fact a Nazi and a relatively highly placed official, but it was exactly the reverse: that given his actual nomenclature, the actuality of Eichmann was that anyone in this sort of mindless, faceless, bureaucratic capacity could be the Nazi. That he was every man, and that was what was truly horrifying to her in the end. That was a controversial thesis because there’s always this effort to distinguish anyone and everyone irrespective of what they’re doing from this polarity of evil that is signified in Nazidom, and she had breached the wall and brought the lessons of how Nazism actually functioned, the modernity of it, home and visited it upon everyone, calling for, then, personal accountability, responsibility, to the taking of responsibility for the outcome of the performance of one’s functions. That’s exactly what it is that is shirked here, and makes it possible for people to, from a safe remove, perform technical functions that result in (and at some level, they know this, they understand it) in carnage, emiseration, the death of millions ultimately. That’s the Eichmann aspect. But notice I said little Eichmanns, not the big Eichmann. Not the real Eichmann. The real Eichmann ultimately is symbolic, even in his own context. He symbolized the people that worked under him. He symbolized the people who actually were on the trains. They were hauling the Jews. He symbolized the technicians who were making the gas for I.G. Farben. He symbolized all of these people who didn’t directly kill anybody, but performed functions and performed those functions with a certain degree of enthusiasm and certainly with a great degree of efficiency, that had the outcome of the mass murder of the people targeted for elimination or accepted as collateral damage. That’s the term of the art put forth by the Pentagon.

AMY GOODMAN: How many people have interpreted this, “if as you said, true enough, they were civilians of a sort, but innocent, give me a break. They formed a technocratic core 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.” How many people have interpreted this as that they deserve what they got?

WARD CHURCHILL: Well, I’m not a judge. I don’t make the assessment as to what it is they deserve. I’m simply pointing to the reality of it. I don’t know that I even agreed with the execution of Eichmann, per se. I’m not repudiating it. I’m not taking exception to it and defending the man, but I don’t make that decision. What I did was posit the reality with the intent of allowing the reader or compelling the reader even to draw their own conclusion. If their conclusion is that if you do these things, you deserve death, then that’s the conclusion they’ve drawn.

AMY GOODMAN: What conclusion…


AMY GOODMAN: What conclusion have you drawn about September 11th and the…

WARD CHURCHILL: Well, I posit my conclusions that if you want to avoid September 11s, if you want security in some actual form, then it’s almost a biblical framing, you have to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As long as you’re doing what the U.S. is doing in the world, you can anticipate a natural and inevitable response of the sort that occurred on 9/11. If you don’t get the message out of 9/11, you’re going to have to change, first of all, your perception of the value of those others who are consigned to domains, semantic domains like collateral damage, then you’ve really got no complaint when the rules you’ve imposed come back on you. If you are going to alter that scenario, you first have to value those little brown bodies that are embodied in the Iraqi children, the half million that were mentioned first, or the Palestinians, or the Grenadans, or the Guatemalans, or the Nicaraguans, or tick off the list. You are going to have to treat them as having human faces, actually having human value and not something, some form of existence to be slaughtered with impunity. And the best signification of that, rhetorically at least, is the U.S. has always postured itself at the forefront of valuing others even as it treats them like toilet paper. Rhetoric alone is not going to do it. Ennobling rhetoric is absolutely irrelevant in this context. You’re going to have to do something concrete. And I recommended that the most concrete thing that could be done was an overt and tangible manifestation of the U.S. at the highest policymaking levels as demanded by the general citizenry to begin to adhere to the rule of law. That is, announce that it accepts the idea that the U.S. is bound to conform to international legal requirements, the same as any other country, rather than announcing always and inevitably that it was entitled to a some sort of a self-defined exception from the rule and that when other people or other peoples objected to that, there’s a unilateralist policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Churchill, do you think that the World Trade Center was an acceptable target on September 11? Do you think it was a legitimate target?

WARD CHURCHILL: Do I personally think it was a legitimate target or should have been a legitimate target? Absolutely not. And that’s said on the basis of all but absolute rejection of and opposition to U.S. policy. But what you have to understand, and what the listeners have to understand, is that under U.S. rules, it was an acceptable target. And the reason it was an acceptable target, if none other, was that because the C.I.A., the Defense Department, and other parts of the U.S. military intelligence infrastructure, had situated offices within it, and you’ll recall that that is precisely the justification advanced by the Donald Rumsfelds of the world, the Norman Schwarzkopfs, and the Colin Powells of the world, to explain why civilian targets had been bombed in Baghdad. Because that nefarious Saddam Hussein had situated elements of his command and control infrastructure within otherwise civilian occupied facilities. They said that, in itself, justified their bombing of the civilian facilities in order to eliminate the parts of the command and control infrastructure that were situated there. And of course, that then became Saddam Hussein’s fault. Well, if it was Saddam Hussein’s fault, sacrificing his own people, by encapsulating strategic targets within civilian facilities, the same rule would apply to the United States. So, if you’ve got a complaint out there with regard to the people who hit the World Trade Center, you should actually take it to the government of the United States, which, by the rubric they apply elsewhere in the world, everywhere else in the world ultimately, they converted them from civilian targets into legitimate military targets. Now, that logic is there, and it’s unassailable. It’s not something that I embrace. It’s something that I just spell out.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you saying was in the World Trade Center?

WARD CHURCHILL: There was a Central Intelligence Agency office. There were Defense Department offices. There was, I believe, an F.B.I. facility. All of which fit the criteria of the bombing target selection utilized by the Pentagon. If it was fair to bomb such targets in Baghdad, it would be fair for others to bomb such targets in New York. That’s what I’m saying. I don’t think it’s fair to bomb such targets in Baghdad, therefore I reject New York, but so long as United States is applying those rules out in the world, it really has no complaint when those rules are applied to it.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Churchill, why did you resign as Head of the Department of Ethnic Studies? You were the Chairperson and what are you planning to do right now, just hearing that at Eastern Washington University, the faculty voted unanimously, one abstention, voted unanimously to reverse the university’s decision, and re-invite you for an engagement you already had there. But this whole investigation that’s going on at the University of Colorado, why did you resign, and what’s your, what are you planning to do next?

WARD CHURCHILL: Well, I resigned immediately when this became an issue, because rightly or wrongly, there’s certain connotations to being an administrative representative of the institution and that was unfair, but it also encumbered my time in ways that would be unfair to my colleagues, if I did not fulfill my responsibilities in an administrative capacity, and I needed my time available to fight this particular fight. So I cleared the decks for action, is what that really came down to. I didn’t want the diversion into a false symbology of what it was that I represented in making my statements and asserting my rights on the one hand, and I needed my time available to do what it is that I’m doing now, which is not exactly what I intended to do in the first place, but again, these are the rules that have been imposed upon me. So, I will meet them on the terms that are imposed.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are your plans right now? I mean, you have the governor calling for your resignation or firing. You have got the university investigating you.

WARD CHURCHILL: Well, the university can investigate to its heart’s content, but this is ultimately a sort of absurdity, the things they’re purportedly investigating have already been vetted. I will stand on my work, on my scholarship, and on my record. No issue there at all. If they want to review their own reviews, see if that’s. I didn’t warrant this sort of station that I now occupy, based upon their own assessments and the assessments of third party scholars, experts in the field over a 20-year period. They can squander the taxpayers’ money doing that. The fact of the matter is, however, this is a considerable expenditure of tax monies to reaffirm what has already been affirmed. Meanwhile, the governor is howling about tax money that goes into subsidizing my salary and overall, in the institutional profile, the tax dollars, the taxpayer contribution, largely is a result of his own and the Colorado legislature’s own Republican desire to remove taxpayers’ money from funding things like higher education…

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Churchill?

WARD CHURCHILL: To about 7% of the whole.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I thank you for being with us.

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