Ward Churchill Reacts to His Firing

He will go down in history as the guy who called the victims of September 11 "little Eichmanns"—a reference to the notorious Nazi bureaucrat who helped ship hundreds of thousands of Jews to concentration camps. Ward Churchill's comment, included in a long-forgotten essay dug up by an enterprising journalism student, stirred a national debate about the power of unpopular words—and the proper consequences for those who use them.

But the saga of the tenured University of Colorado ethnic studies professor grew more complicated in 2006, after allegations surfaced that Churchill had plagiarized, falsified or misrepresented some of his other scholarly work (Churchill denies any wrongdoing). An investigation was launched, and a panel of peers pored over his work. By May 2006, the panel had reached some damning conclusions, saying some of Churchill's questionable writings fell into the category of academic misconduct. But the five-person panel was split on whether Churchill should be fired. That didn't stop University of Colorado President Hank Brown from recommending to the school's elected Board of Regents that Churchill, an extremely popular teacher on campus, be terminated. On Tuesday, the Board voted 8 to 1 to do just that.

Churchill calls his dismissal nothing short of a free-speech witch hunt. Brown calls Churchill's criticism "a smoke screen." The battle isn't over. The morning after his firing, the professor filed a lawsuit in Denver district court, saying his dismissal was retaliatory—and a violation of his free speech. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jim Moscou about what he calls the "conspiracy" against him—and explains why he still stands by the phrase that struck hard at the country's soul.

NEWSWEEK: Any regrets over calling 9/11 victims "little Eichmanns"?
Ward Churchill:
No. I never have any particular regrets about calling things by their right name. And it's about time we stop pretending that Americans are in a completely different analytical category from everyone else in the world, and are somehow exempt from the consequences of their actions.

Let's be clear for a moment: how do you define a "little Eichmann"?
Exactly as Hannah Arendt did. [Arendt was a German-Jewish political theorist whose work included coverage of the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel. She coined the phrase "banality of evil," suggesting great evil emerges from ordinary people accepting and participating in misguided premises of the state, rather than driven by sociopaths and fanatics.]

And how do you think she defined it?
Well, that's a scholar, a Jewish scholar … who very self-consciously (considered) the aftermath of what happened to the Jewish people in the hands of the Nazis. She attended the Eichmann trial. And she probably intimated as much that she intended in confronting a monster. And what she confronted was a little, nondescript mouse of man, a consummate bureaucrat, petty individual, who didn't even necessarily agree with some of the policies he had been in a position to implement, but who took his identity, who took his sense of self-esteem, prestige, possibility of advancement—all which is fairly important to people—from discharging his organizational responsibilities in a superior manner.

(The public backlash) was just a visceral reaction. .…What Eichmann did was arrange train schedules, the logistic structure for the delivery of Jews and materials to the camps, and the transport from the camps, things like the gold fillings from teeth. We're talking ugly business here. But he wasn't handling the gold. He wasn't killing the Jews. Not even the Israelis accused him of that. He was absolutely instrumental in a technocratic, bureaucratic, very sterile-organization sense for rendering the process efficient.

But how can you possibly compare the victims of 9/11 to that of a man shipping the gold fillings from murdered Jews?
Those (9/11 victims) who were engaged in the international-financial operations, which were the motive cause for U.S. policy … in full knowledge of what effects were on juvenile populations, sweatshops, and so forth—that's the anchor there. Implement policy for profit, to maximize profit, to increase dividends, blah, blah, blah. Which also, by the way, increases their commission, establishes their stature, leads to their promotion trajectory, leads to their quality of life, and in full knowledge—they may suppress it—of the carnage that is induced in this profit-maximization profile. …Basically, I said you are accountable for what you do in the world. And … if you are profiting from carnage … you are the moral and philosophical equivalent of Adolf Eichmann. You don't like that, change the behavior. That's not who you want to be, stop acting like that.

So the behavior of every 9/11 victim is a moral equivalency to Eichmann's support of the Holocaust?
I don't know. Why don't you ask what the moral equivalency would be of the half-million Iraqi children that died in Iraq from U.S. sanctions? Those children were reduced to less than no value. Now if you were the parent of one of those children … how are you going to ultimately respond? You want security from that kind of retaliation, stop killing their kids. Stop acting like your kids are important and theirs are utterly irrelevant. Stop acting, as [former secretary of State Madeleine] Albright put it, that we have decided that it's worth the cost of their pre-12-year-old children to convey what George Bush the first said, "What we say, goes."

The University of Colorado Regents voted 8 to 1 to fire you. Your reaction?
Perfectly predictable.

You saw it coming?
Oh, since about February 2005. I was teaching when [the little Eichmann essay revelation] occurred, in the spring of 2005—the spring I was voted the best undergraduate teacher on campus by all the students. …(By spring 2006), I was placed on administrative leave.

What have you been doing since then?
I've been doing research and work. That's my life, man.

Were you surprised to see a lone vote against your dismal?
Somewhat. I actually figured there may be as many as two votes of purported liberals who, in full knowledge of how it was going to turn out, could then posture. ... I'm not saying that's totally cynical on Cindy Carlisle's part [the C.U. regent who cast the sole vote not to dismiss Churchill]. I think she actually believed what it was she believed; that the penalty was too severe. … Being a regent doesn't qualify you for any scholarly authority and frankly being a former Republican senator and professional administrator—just like [being C.U. president and former Colorado senator] Hank Brown doesn't qualify you for having a particular competency either.

But it was essentially a 2006 review of your work by faculty—a committee of your peers—that the regents based their decision on.
Let's cut to the heart of this. They spent over two years building up this illusion that there is a competent, scholarly authority, which was the basis of this set of investigative findings; that I engaged in falsifying, misrepresentation, blah blah blah. ... Well, it seems that there is a whole litany of research-misconduct complaints that have begun to emerge about the nature of the report itself, which begins with the fact they have not made any of the primary evidence available so it can be compared to their interpretation of it.

The committee's review of your work was unflinching. They said they found deliberate examples of plagiarism and fabrications that were "not a matter of occasional careless error."
They can say whatever they want. …They will not let it be subjected to scholarly scrutiny, which means it's vacuous assertions.

Setting aside your issue with the committee, as an academic, don't you believe the committee's conclusions amount to a dismissible offense?
No, no, no, no, no. We're not going to play that game. These are not my issues. … (What) they are saying … will be held to the same scholarly standard and scholarly integrity that they say they are enforcing, or it is an absolute sham. That's not "my issue."

So you question the scholarly integrity of the committee review?
What I'm saying is you can say whatever you want. Anybody can. Including people with PhDs. It either passes scholarly muster or not. It's either true or its not. … If that's true, it should be subject to the same scrutiny as any other scholarship. If not, then it's not scholarly and it's a sham, because they have presented it as scholarship.

Are you saying there is fraud?
I'm saying it's fraudulent. I've been saying it since day one. … It's about time someone mentions the fact they will not allow scholarly scrutiny of the supposedly ironclad positions that they have advanced as facts to the public.

Do you believe was there a conspiracy to fire you?
I believe there was literally a conspiracy within the administration, a strategy that was hatched by virtue of devising a plan to create certain appearances. … I'm not simply tossing out rhetoric when I say "sham" and "fraud."

How could the administration control the findings of your peers?
This was as much of a jury of my peers as the (1950s) all-white juries in the southeastern states in regard to black defendants. …These were not my peers and they were handpicked. You've got the chair of the committee who was writing to people—and I've got the e-mails—referring to me as a most unpleasant individual, although we have never met; comparing me, and this is a quote, to celebrity-male wrong doers, are your ready for this, O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson and horror-of-horrors, Bill Clinton. …These were not peers. I'm saying the committee was handpicked.

On Tuesday's high-profile hearing you wore an American Indian Movement T shirt. Why are you connecting your firing on misconduct charges with the Native American struggle?
Do you know anything about my work?

I do.
I don't understand your question then. Virtually everything I write about, the whole focus of the scholarship, has to do with American Indians. I'm an American Indians professor.

Are you saying that they fired you because of your Native American work and positions?
Because I reflect a native understanding of the nature of the interactions that have occurred since a lost Italian seamen washed up on a beach in the Caribbean half a world away from where he thought he was, and was called a great navigator. We don't say that was necessarily a great navigational accomplishment. We've got a different understanding in our histories, in our societies, in our communities. Those are reflected in my writings. That's my job.

Does that also reflect in what happened to you?

They are looking to repeal the whole interpretive line that I've advanced! … I'm considered—rightly, wrongly or indifferent—at the forefront of this particular line of historical interpretations of indigenous understanding. That is to be completely discredited.

Will you stay in teaching?
I've been teaching all my life. And I guess you can say in a way that I'm engaged in teaching right now.

Do you think you did anything wrong at all, or are you just a victim?
I'm not a victim. Never, ever call me a victim. OK? Don't call me embattled either. I'm beginning to think that's my first name (from its use in press reports). It's ridiculous. I'm a target, not a victim. And you may notice, I don't tend to roll over and get stepped on.