The Banality Of Writing About Evil

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University of Colorado Professor Mstory=671638>Ward Churchill still doesn't get it. Even though he has tried to clarify and backtrack upon the worst of his intemperate remarks about the victims of the terror attacks on America, he persists in hanging a blood libel on thousands of victims and, by clear implication, you and me.

In the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks on America, while the rest of us were watching television numb with sorrow, Churchill wrote a 10-page screed describing why, in his view, America got her just desserts on September 11, 2001. His essay, "Some People Push Back – On the Justice of Roosting Chickens," was apparently finished on 9-11-01 itself, a fact that will make perfect sense to you if and when you read it. In his rush to get the piece done, clearly, Churchill sacrificed both good common sense and literary style. The stylistic flaws aren't important. His lack of judgment, clarity and sensitivity are.

Among his other hyperbolic accusations, Churchill claimed that the victims inside the World Trade Center were not "innocent victims" of the terror attacks. "To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see," Churchill wrote. "More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it."

The reference to "little Eichmanns" was a reference to Adolf Eichmann, a key Nazi bureaucrat who helped implement Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution" against the Jewish people. In her seminal book, "Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the Banality of Evil," Hannah Arendt quotes one of Eichmann's prosecutors, who said in 1961 that "there was only one man who had been concerned almost entirely with the Jews, whose business had been their destruction, whose role in the establishment of the iniquitous regime had been limited to them. That was Adolf Eichmann." Simply put, Eichmann helped carry out the Nazi extermination plan with chilling precision and a dutifulness that even today defies comprehension. If he did not actually pull a trigger or drop a Cyclon B gas pellet into a death chamber, Eichmann, more than most, ensured that the actual exterminators could and would and did.

A good scholar thus would not use Eichmann's name lightly or compare him loosely. And yet Eichmann is the man Churchill chose to invoke even as the rubble of Twin Towers burned. Worse, he did not compare Eichmann to Osama bin Laden, whose murderous design and deft execution merits some comparison with his predecessor in terror. Instead, Churchill chose to compare a tool of the worst genocide in human history with the men and women who died at the World Trade Center. You don't need me to tell you why that comparison is foul and grotesque. The victims of 9-11-01 did not murder anyone. They did not authorize or permit the murder of anyone. They did not implement a genocidal scheme to rid the world of a race of people. They did not systematically deprive a people of fundamental human rights. They did not look away as mothers were torn from their children and burned alive. They did not brutalize families and towns and villages.

What Churchill wrote is not scholarship. It is not a polemic. It is not rhetoric designed to encourage students to think anew about old questions. It is an infamy. So on Tuesday night in Boulder, three years after he first penned his essay, in a speech that had been cancelled and then rescheduled by jittery university officials, Churchill backtracked. Under tremendous pressure, he told a large audience: "No I did not call a bunch of food service workers, janitors, children, firefighters and random passersby little Eichmanns. The reference is to a technical core of empire-the technicians of empire – obviously I was not talking about these people."

But, as you can see from the initial passage, Churchill made no such distinction in his essay. On the contrary, he did call all of the World Trade Center victims "little Eichmanns." If he didn't mean to say that, he shouldn't have. Mean what you say and say what you mean, right? Surely a scholar, a writer, should have been more careful with his choice of words. Whether it was intellectual laziness, or carelessness of thought, Churchill glibly libeled all of the victims on the very day that they had been turned to dust. Whether his ultimate point was or is valid or not, this unforgivable mistake, alone, ought to generate a great deal of scrutiny by the folks now investigating Churchill's work. Good academics are precise; good scholars have proof; good teachers don't exaggerate; and good people usually have had the good sense to understand that the victims of this epochal crime surely didn't ask for it or deserve it.

Let's take Churchill at his most recent word, though. When he wrote about "little Eichmanns," he now says, he meant only those employees and managers working at the big corporations whose offices were in the World Trade Center. Companies like Cantor Fitzgerald, the big bond traders. And Marsh & McClennan, the giant insurance firm. And Aon Corporation, the reinsurance firm. And Sandler O'Neill, the mergers and acquisition firm. It is true that the people who work at these companies, and other companies at the World Trade Center that focused upon finance, help stoke the engine that helps run the American economy and, indeed, the economy of the world. But the leap Churchill then makes – that working for one of those companies makes you implicit in any perceived crime the American government is alleged to have made – is unsupportable.

As demonstrated by the positions their families have taken since September 11, 2001, the victims of that crime were Republicans and Democrats, independents and apolitical. Some no doubt would have supported the war in Iraq. Others certainly would have opposed it. Some clearly were politically aware and savvy. Others undoubtedly were not. Some did work that transcended borders. Some did not. Some merely answered the telephone or traded bonds or ensured that other companies were properly insured against loss. But all had one thing in common – a central fact that has nothing to do with Churchill's twisted point. In one form or another, they all were doing their jobs when the planes hit; they all were trying to make a living and a better place for themselves and their families in the world. Precisely how this translates into Eichmann-like status is beyond me, and that's the central failing of Churchill's work. After making the heinous allegation, he didn't bother to explain it or why anyone ought to believe it. What kind of scholar does that?

Worse, by linking the Nazi leader to the men and women inside the Twin Towers, Churchill at once diluted the enormous impact of Adolf Eichmann's terrible crimes against humanity and raised all of us to the status of "little Eichmanns," since all of us contribute in one way or another to the mighty industrial machine that is America. I buy General Electric light bulbs. I invest in mutual funds that include an array of stock in big corporations. I pay taxes that help pay for the military effort whether I agree with that effort or not. In Churchill's angry world, this makes me "part of the technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire." And it makes me complicit in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. You, me, former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway – we all do, to varying degrees, what Churchill's accused his "little Eichmanns" of doing. The only difference is that we are alive today while the people Churchill singled out were torn from their lives and this world in one shattering moment of fire.

If this is Churchill's point – that every American is responsible for creating a bloody and cruel empire called America – he ought to say so more succinctly and clearly, and he ought to offer more than high-school rhetoric to support his argument. If this is not Churchill's point, if he still is unable to articulate what he really means, he ought to explain himself further and perhaps backtrack a few more miles. Those of us in America who live in and care about the world may be many things; we may be selfish and greedy and lazy and complacent, but we are not Adolf Eichmman.
  • Joel Roberts

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