When ‘Little Eichmanns’ died in New York

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

Jamie O’Neill teaches English at Butte Community College

Ward Churchill, an ethnic-studies professor in Colorado, wrote on the subject of the attack against the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, that the nearly 3,000 people who died there had it coming because they were “little Eichmanns.”

The “Eichmann” the professor refers to was Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi functionary who efficiently managed the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews.

As chairman of the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Colorado, Professor Churchill earned an annual salary of $114,000 before stepping down from that post, back to a light teaching slot that pays a mere $93,000. Many Colorado taxpayers would like to see him fired. Predictably, this has raised the quite distinct issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech. The professor’s right to say what he said should be sacred; the requirement that he be paid handsomely by taxpayers is not quite the same question.

Professor Churchill said he didn’t mean to make a comparison between those who died on 9/11 and Nazis, though it’s rather difficult to see how any other comparison could be inferred, since when most people hear the name “Eichmann” they tend to think “Nazi” and not “vacuum cleaner salesman.”

The professor is nothing if not disingenuous. After his remarks got him in deserved hot water, he said a) that he’d been misquoted and b) that he didn’t mean to compare the “waiters” and “broom pushers” and “passersby” who died on 9/11 to Eichmann, but only the stock traders and others who serve the corporate/military machinery and c) he wasn’t backing down. He said these things in conjunction with the release of his book On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, in which he argues that events like the attack on the World Trade Center are just cases of retaliation by victims of U.S. foreign policy.

How this well-compensated professor manages to exclude himself from the machinery of the state is beyond me, and how he figures himself less complicit in U.S. “crimes” than guys who were working as stock analysts at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 is equally a mystery. He pays taxes, after all, and he runs students through a system used to further the aims and interests of the ruling classes, doesn’t he?

I have lots of problems with U.S. foreign policy both past and present, but to suggest that the gang of Saudis who hijacked those planes and flew them into office buildings on Sept. 11 were some sort of freedom fighters is nonsense. To suggest, as Professor Churchill does, that the 9/11 strike was a response to U.S. sanctions against Iraq after the first Iraq war is a profoundly stupid misreading of the motives of those terrorists. And to compare a guy trading stocks from a cubicle in the World Trade Center to a Nazi monster is just plain nuts.

Just plain nuts is what some ethnic-studies teachers seem to be. They begin with the undeniable assertion that U.S. history is riddled with crimes against ethnic peoples. Like any powerful nation, the United States has not always used that power wisely. The nation has not always lived up to its highest ideals. We were late to abolish slavery and to give women the right to vote. Our depredations against Native Americans are too egregious to be denied. We have supported repressive regimes around the globe, and our treatment of emigrants, whether from Mexico or Ireland, has seldom been consistent with the words emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

But these national failings cannot undo all the good in our national character, including the fundamental good guaranteed in our Bill of Rights—the inalienable right to voice noxious notions. This is the only country in the history of the world where one race fought to win the rights of another race. This is the only country in the world that has ever managed to assimilate such a wide band of humanity from so many different nations. And this is one of very few countries where the dream of opportunity has been made available to so many of its citizens.

But that isn’t the vision of the U.S. any student is likely to hear about in many of the nation’s ethnic-studies classes. At my own college, for instance, students are required to take an ethnic-studies class to meet their general-education requirements. One such class is called “The Mexican-American.” In that class students mostly learn of how Mexican-Americans have been victimized at the hands of oppressive Anglo racists.

Such courses misrepresent our nation’s history, and they also oversimplify and stereotype entire ethnic communities as being homogenous in their victimization. In many of these classes, students are treated to lessons in American history as skewed and as distorted as were the classes that once taught students little more than the falsely patriotic version of the United States as simply all good.

From its inception, the quite reasonable discipline of ethnic studies got stolen by polemicists, race baiters and demagogues. Far too many of the professors, secure in their tenured positions, simply bullied students who were captive audiences for their political views. Many of those instructors were intolerant of dissenting views from students, as intolerant as they accused the country of being of dissenting views from its citizenry. Many of them didn’t conduct classes in a spirit of open inquiry, but offered indoctrination instead.

So it didn’t surprise me much when I learned that the guy who spouted off about World Trade Center victims being "little Eichmanns" was the head of an ethnic-studies department. That’s just the kind of categorical and often moronic generalization too often heard from such quarters.