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.


  • Of course you're being very generous when you assert that we don't target civilians. Hiroshama comes to mind right away as an easy counterexample.

    By Blogger PhD9, at March 1, 2005 at 4:45 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger RaulGroom, at March 1, 2005 at 5:28 PM  

  • Well, of course you're right there, although Hiroshima and Nagasaki also fall under the category of "Hard Cases Make Bad Law" for me - that's an imperfect analogy, I know, but what I mean is that since the dropping of the atom bomb elicits such extreme reactions it is not generally an especially useful point of comparison because people get so worked up about it.

    A better choice might be the Dresden bombing, well chronicled by Kurt Vonnegut in its extreme barbarism and extraordinary disregard for the lives of innocent civilians. However, I tend to steer clear of world war two entirely, particularly since there are plenty of examples of the U.S. targeting civilians in the very recent past.

    The bombing of Fallujah springs to mind, and those who continue to believe the U.S. assertions that only ""insurgents" remained in the city, well, they can continue to believe that for as long as they like, but I hope that at whatever point in the future they discover that was not the case, I would hope they will be honest with themselves and realize that they were not really actively deceived but that they merely believed what they wanted to believe, despite the evidence and common sense.

    By Blogger RaulGroom, at March 1, 2005 at 5:30 PM  

  • I haven't read more than a few excerpts from Churchill's piece, namely the ones that are quoted in articles about the controversy. Nevertheless, I have a pretty good idea of what he meant by "little Eichmanns". Since Hannah Arendt's book "The Banality of Evil", his name has stood as a symbol for a certain type of malefactor. Namely a bureaucrat who simply carries out his assigned function within the system, and indeed takes pride in his efficiency in carrying out this bureaucratic task. Such a bureaucrat is able to do this psychologically because he never looks beyond the narrow confines of his task to fully comprehend the death and destruction they are causing. In the case of Eichmann the task was supposedly insuring the selection of Jews and their subsequent transportation to the to the death camps by rail proceeded efficiently. (Many disagree with this assessment of the historical Eichmann, believing him to be much more enthusiastic about the extermination of Jewry itself, but that is not germane to the point at hand.)

    Now, given this interpretation, I think Churchill's labelling was completely incorrect in the case of the World Trade Center. The reason is that the vast majority of the people killed there were employed by government agencies such as the Port Authoirity of NY that had nothing to do with any of our actions overseas or, extremely low level functionaries, or employees of firms such as Cantor Fitzgerald that mostly dealt with trading municipal bonds that keep services in the US working. However, he was reflecting a misconception that the terrorists themselves and many Americans seemed to have shared, namely that the WTC was an imporant nerve center of the American economy and empire. In fact, it was a real estate fiasco that mostly had to be given away to very low level tenants or pawned off on obscure government agencies that wanted to help the Port Authority deal with this boondoggle. That is not to say that there aren't Eichmanns (in the above sense) in the American military-industrial complex. But if the terrorists aim was to hit the Eichmanns, they did an extraordinarily poor job on 9/11, and Churchill just looks like a fool for ascribing success to them.

    On the other hand, Churchill has explained in subsequent interviews that he had another point in that piece: to say that the civilian collatoral damage we cause puts us on a par with the terrorists. That may be more valid, but it hasn't been the focus of criticism against him, more the "Eichmann" phraseology. In any case, wrong as he may be, you are correct that he should obviously not be fired for his remarks. That would make the whole notion of tenure meaningless, as it is a privelege designed expressly to allow academic to say unpopular things. If the people of Colorado don't like what their tenured professors are saying, perhaps they should look more carefully at the candidates before granting tenure. But sorry guys, it's too late now to take it back. (I also don't think they'll fire him, because they know he'd only sue the state and win.)

    Now, I don't really understand the point in your essay that declaring 9/11 to be an act of war necessarily robs us of the high moral ground. I don't see why one could not take the position that both our bombing of Iraq and the terroists' destruction of the WTC were acts of war, yet our acts of war are justified because, well, justice is on our side in this conflict, or our system and vision for the world are so much better than that of the Islamists, or what have you. Now, I don't agree with that point of view, based on my knowledge of recent history and various other facts, and I could deconstruct it in any number of ways. But the view I have just enunciated seems to be both coherent and noncontradictory, and fairly popular among the American elite. Perhaps you could explain your point a little better to the reader.

    By Blogger heatkernel, at March 3, 2005 at 3:03 AM  

  • "yet our acts of war are justified because, well, justice is on our side in this conflict, or our system and vision for the world are so much better than that of the Islamists, or what have you"

    This is a perfect example of the fuzzy thinking that allows unjust wars to be waged in the first place.

    Simply asserting "Justice is on our side" doesn't cause it to become true.

    By Blogger PhD9, at March 3, 2005 at 2:49 PM  

  • I thought I had made it clear that I did not agree with that position. I brought it up as an example of a popular and logically noncontradictory, though incorrect position on 9/11. My point in bringing it up was to say that characterizing the 9/11 attacks as an act of war and our actions against the terrorists as part of a war doesn't necessarily mean that we are on the same moral level as the terrorists. In a war, one side may or may not have a moral advantage (unless you adopt an extreme pacifist position that all combatants are equally at fault in all cases--a possible but unlikely notion).

    As regards the case at hand, I think it's pretty clear that the Bush admin. chose to designate 9/11 as an act of war for two self-serving and cynical reasons. One, it is useful as propoganda ("We're at war--rally around the flag and the Leader!"). Two, it allows them to ignore various legal niceties in dealing with accused terrorists, something Raul already touched upon.

    By Blogger heatkernel, at March 4, 2005 at 2:18 AM  

  • I might be misunderstanding, but it seems you're arguing we should classify 9/11 as a crime rather than an act of war because it's more convenient to do so; because classifying it as an act of war leads to ideological contradictions.

    I happen to agree with you, but for different reasons. The concept of "war" in most people's minds includes a state as an actor - I double checked webster's, and the first definition of war was "A contest between nations or states, carried on by force". In my book, what happened on 9/11 was a crime because a non-state actor was responsible. One could certainly argue that al Qaeda had the support of states, but that's not the same thing. In that case, if anything, a person would have to argue that the Taliban's support of al Qaeda was the act of war (one state's aggression towards another) but that 9/11 was still a crime.

    Oh, one other parting shot - that comparison between American civilian casualties and those on 9/11 - that's only a valid comparison if you buy that 9/11 was an act of war (which neither of us buys) and I think it's also irrelevant. Pointing out "well sure the indiscriminant killing of civilians is bad, but we've done it too" doesn't do anything to forgive the criminals of 9/11. They're still criminals. And when we've done it, it reflects just as poorly on the US. Criminals are not justified in victimizing anyone else, EVEN IF the people they are victimizing are themselves criminals, period.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 9, 2005 at 6:54 PM  

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