Deep Underground with Raul Groom

Monday, February 28, 2005

Picking a Fight

During the first couple weeks after my daughter was born there was of course this big furor over Ward Churchill’s September 11th essay, but for obvious reasons I didn’t hear about it until sometime later. In fact, I was told about it by some liberal friends who came over to see the baby. Their attitude toward the subject was the typical liberal reaction – that is, they condemned the comments in extreme terms but were squeamish about the idea of his getting fired from his tenured post (I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were against it, but they were not for it.)

Now obviously there are two issues here – what Churchill wrote and its validity, and then the question of whether it is all right to fire someone from a tenured academic post for saying something people don’t agree with. The topic of course that liberals want to discuss is the latter, because on that point the right wing is simply clearly wrong and showing its very worst side in trying to punish someone who said something unpopular.

Obviously a tenured professor cannot be disciplined in any way for something that he wrote as long as it wasn’t libelous or leaking a CIA agent’s name or whatever. There really isn’t any more discussion to be had on that point because there is no other position to be taken that’s consistent with the values of an open society.

Trouble is, liberals, even many leftists, are so snakebit at this point in history that they are unwilling to push further and actually engage the right – or even each other – on the question of what Churchill might have meant, and whether his point of view might have had any validity.

The first step down that road would of course be to read Churchill’s September 11th essay and analyze the content and the points made in the piece. This is well beyond what the vast majority of people will be willing to do because the essay is very long, not very well written, and brings up a lot of uncomfortable facts about American history that most people simply choose not to believe.

To my friends’ credit, at least one of them had actually read the essay and had some knowledge of its points and content, although we did not discuss it at length because I had not seen it. I sincerely wish I could have taken the opportunity to engage her about it, though, because it was a missed opportunity to talk about some rarely-discussed issues regarding the framework in which we evaluate our own behavior, and how that framework is often radically different from the framework we use to evaluate the behavior of others.

Fortunately I have a blog, whose readership is actually not particularly leftist, so I should be able to generate some good discussion here instead. Here’s hoping.

In my view, Churchill’s piece, aside from stylistic concerns (which are legion) or any factual problems a thorough analysis might uncover (I am not an expert on all the topics he alludes to, but FWIW I noticed no glaring errors) makes the mistake of involving extraordinarily emotional imagery where a more sober discussion of reality frameworks would have sufficed. However, it is hard to fault the author for this for two reasons – one, the entire article was written on September 11th itself, so it must have been penned almost in a stream-of-consciousness mode, and two, had Churchill written the sort of piece I am describing, it probably never would have gotten any attention at all.

As it is, here we are talking about the piece, and since now all of us have hopefully read the thing, let’s examine the questions it raises about framework.

When I was first told of Churchill’s piece, or to be more precise, of its most inflammatory assertion – that the World Trade Center victims of September 11th were “little Eichmann’s” and thus legitimate targets in war – my immediate reaction was that indeed that assertion was true, from a very limited and somewhat degenerate point of view.

Unfortunately for everyone concerned, the perspective necessary to justify this clearly heinous judgment is not a fringe viewpoint in America; it is in fact the mainstream view. Indeed, one of the key features of the 2004 presidential campaign was a competition between Bush and Kerry to see who could moe convincingly portray himself as supremely devoted to just the sort of intellectual framework that leads to pronouncements like the one for which Churchill is currently being excoriated.

Though it is difficult to recall now, in the weeks after the September 11th attacks there was actually some discussion about the correct way to interpret, and therefore respond to, the attacks. There were two main points of view (other options existed, of course, but did not enter the mass consciousness except for brief instants before being derisively snuffed out): that the attacks should be treated as a massive criminal conspiracy and handled through international law enforcement channels, or that we should view the attacks as an act of war.

The overwhelming popular viewpoint at the time was that the September 11th attacks were an act of war, and that viewpoint is today near-universal in the U.S. There are good practical and theoretical arguments in favor of this point of view, but unfortunately operating under this framework leads to some uncomfortable questions that we would rather not face.

When a criminal act is perpetrated, the time for questioning the motives and intent of the criminals is in the distant future, before a judge or jury. The first order of business is to bring the perpetrators to justice.

When an act of war is perpetrated, the questions of motive, justification, and legitimacy arise immediately, and are of paramount importance. In the case of September 11th, the question is whether the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were legitimate targets, and whether those who carried out the attacks are waging an aggressive war (illegitimate in the eyes of international law) or a defensive one (which is allowable under certain circumstances.)

Let me state (as Churchill has in interviews) that I do not subscribe to the “Act of War” school of thought with regard to September 11th. I regard the atrocities as a massive crime, one of the great mass murders of history, and I argued for the law enforcement approach at the time and continue to think that is the approach that makes the most sense, for reasons we can discuss another time. This approach has the added benefit of allowing me to view every single casualty of that black day as a murder victim. I am not burdened with the task of deciding whether or not their deaths can be justified. However, continuing in the framework that is dominant among Americans, we quickly run into some troubling problems.

First, the Pentagon is obviously a legitimate war target. It’s the world’s largest and most expensive military installation and is engaged in constant war planning and usually in the actual fighting of wars. Indeed, the Pentagon is a much more legitimate war target, morally, than a military barracks or a munitions depot, since the attack targets those who are actually perpetrating war rather than those who are merely pawns in some great game.

The World Trade Center is more complicated, but not quite as complicated as we might like to believe. The towers were home to the offices of dozens of weapons manufacturers, oil companies, and financial institutions that are integral in the running of the American war machine.

Of course, most of the people killed that day had nothing at all to do with making war on foreign nations – they were civilians, plain and simple, and cannot be targeted in war. However, the amount of care that is traditionally required of warmakers when neutralizing legitimate war targets is rather low. Indeed, to make a morbid but nonetheless valid comparison, the 2,000 or so bona fide innocent civilians killed September 11th are outnumbered approximately 500:1 by the civilians killed by American warmaking in the last 20 years.

It is fashionable to make a distinction between what they do – actually target innocent civilians – and what we do – merely kill civilians accidentally (though predictably) during the prosecution of legitimate warmaking. That distinction is actually fairly accurate in the case of, say, Palestinian suicide bombers, but in the case of September 11th it is not.

I and others on the left maintain today as I have for years that the September 11th attacks were not an act of war but an international criminal conspiracy to commit murder. By approaching them as an act of war, we have painted ourselves into our final corner, forcing us to adopt the rule of bullies and hypocrites – one ideological framework for evaluating everyone else’s actions, and a different one for evaluating our own.

When Ward Churchill referred to the September 11th dead as "little Eichmann's," he committed the only capital crime in American intellectual culture - he applied reprehensible moral standards to our enemies that are supposed to be reserved for us alone.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Death of the Doctor

As you probably already know, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson died this weekend of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Hopefully I will have more to say about this in the near future, but these days, who knows? For now I will direct you to the sort of Thompson obituary there should be more of. Nothing would disgust the Doctor more than the legions of swine who are now clamoring to praise Thompson in death, when their lives were and are an affront to everything he stood for.

Those who did not get it should just keep on not getting it. Death has not taken the Doctor from those who understood him. Nor has it brought him any closer to those who did not.

That is all for now.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

A New Groom Sleeps Clean

Well, the newest addition to the Allende-Groom clan has arrived and she is disturbingly beautiful. Hopefully I'll have more to say about the whole experience and how weird it was to be involved in such a spectacular display of the power of human beings to experience the fundamental reality of their oneness with a universal whole while our public policy was even at that moment degenerating further and further into rank and unadulterated boobery.

But for now I'll simply send you to Josh Micah Marshall, who has some very useful analysis of the Social Security situation. Several points here that no one is discussing but which are as plain as the smirk on Dubya's stupid monkey face.

Oh, and it's good to be da papa.