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INSIGHT

Ward Churchill

Aired February 9, 2005 - 23:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WARD CHURCHILL, RADICAL: I'm not backing up an inch. I owe no one an apology, clarification, nothing.

JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST (voice-over): School for scandal. An American professor praises the terrorists of 9/11 and likens the victims to Nazis. Does he deserve to keep his job? Does he deserve the right to dissent?

CHURCHILL: I am going to think about my class. Get out of my (EXPLETIVE DELETED) face.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MANN: Hello and welcome.

Ward Churchill has been doing his best for years to get people to listen. The University of Colorado professor has been an outspoken activist on behalf of Native Americans, a prolific author of mostly overlooked books and by the standards of American politics a radical.

But Churchill, who has never gotten much of a hearing before, is getting hate mail and death threats from people who have already heard too much. The reason: his views on the victims and perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.

On our program today, opinions some Americans don't want to hear.

We begin with this report from CNN's Paula Zahn.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PAULA ZAHN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): September 11, while the nation was coming to grips with the horrific images in New York, Shanksville and at the Pentagon, one American was putting his thoughts to paper. Calling victims of the terrorist attacks "little Eichmanns," in a direct comparison To Hitler henchman and Holocaust engineer Adolf Eichmann.

His name, Ward Churchill, a Native-American activist, Vietnam veteran, and tenured professor with the University of Colorado's ethnic studies program.

Churchill's September 11 essay went on to describe Pentagon victims as quote, "military targets, pure and simple." And characterized some of the World Trade Center victims not as innocent but as quote, "braying, self- importantly into their cell phones arranging power lunches and stock transactions."

That essay was later expanded into a book which went largely unnoticed until last month when the Colorado professor was invited to speak at Hamilton College in upstate New York.

The national media soon picked up on it. And by Monday, Churchill bowed to pressure, stepping down as chairman of the ethnic study program.

In the interest of free speech, Hamilton College officials initially vowed to honor their invitation to Churchill despite pressure from New York governor George Pataki.

GOV. GEORGE PATAKI, (R) NEW YORK: Let him speak. Let him say his hatred, spew his hatred, let him put out his support for terrorism, but not at a respected forum here in New York.

ZAHN: And by Tuesday, Hamilton College officials canceled the event.

Back on the Colorado campus, protests against Churchill...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everyone around here is welcome to come sign our petition to have this madman fired.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's still being a cheerleader for terrorism. He's still saying they should attack us again. Nothing has changed.

ZAHN: . have been matched by counter-protests.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Professors should be allowed to express their feeling and thoughts and ideas.

ZAHN: And the fact he remains an active professor doesn't sit well with Colorado Governor Bill Owens.

GOV. BILL OWENS, (R) COLORADO: When you say in essence they had it coming and they deserved it, that is beyond what we should be paying for through our tuition and through our taxes to the University of Colorado. If he had any sense of moral authority, he would resign.

ZAHN: Colorado state legislators approved a resolution condemning Professor Churchill, calling his remarks evil and inflammatory.

TED HARVEY, COLORADO STATE HOUSE: And we do not accept the pronouncements of Professor Churchill, rather we denounce them as being disgusting, vulgar, repugnant.

ZAHN: But throughout the firestorm, many of his colleagues have defended his right to free speech.

PROF. EMMA PEREZ, UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO: We as the faculty and the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder stand in full and unconditional support of our colleague Ward Churchill's freedom of expression and first amendment rights.

ZAHN: Churchill himself says he's received more than 100 death threats. And claims that his truck was vandalized. His daily life now is in the media spotlight.

CHURCHILL: I am going to think about my class. Get out of my (EXPLETIVE DELETED) face.

ZAHN: An emergency meeting of University of Colorado regents erupted into chaos. The regents will spend the next 30 days reviewing Churchill's speech and writings before making any decisions about his fate.

In the meantime, the regents apologize to the nation for the writings of their professor.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MANN: Forgive the pun, but the debate over Ward Churchill is not purely academic. The United States is still scarred by September 11 and survivors are still mourning the dead. There are college students who lost loved ones that day.

CNN's Maria Hinojosa talked to one of them about Churchill's views.

BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARIA HINOJOSA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Even at picturesque Hamilton College, five hours north of New York City, the events of September 11 were never far away from Matthew Coppo. His father died in the Twin Towers.

MATTHEW COPPO, FATHER KILLED ON 9/11: It's a little remembrance thing that -- it has been three years, but it doesn't seem like three years.

HINOJOSA: So he was angry when he read in the campus newspaper that Ward Churchill had been invited to speak at his college, the Colorado professor who once wrote that the people who died September 11, like his father, were not innocent victims.

COPPO: For him to stand up and preach that all the September 11 victims deserved it and then to reference them to Nazis, I don't understand why the school would want to give him that.

HINOJOSA: Coppo wanted him disinvited and a debate broke out on campus over Churchill's right to free speech. The national media was not far behind and soon there were death threats against the school president and the controversial speaker.

JOAN STEWART, PRES. HAMILTON COLLEGE: At this point, the question of security outweighed the right of any particular individual to speak. And I had, reluctantly, to cancel the event.

HINOJOSA: Churchill's speech was canceled. But the night he was supposed to speak, students continued the debate around campus in forums closed to the media and the public who students felt had hijacked their debate. They signed a free speech banner and donned t-shirts saying the mark of an educated mind is that it can entertain an idea without accepting it.

Thomas Acampora, also lost friends and co-workers on September 11. He says he's disgusted by Churchill's writings, but wanted an opportunity to challenge him.

THOMAS ACAMPORA, STUDENT: It is at the heart of this academic community that we engage views that we don't find that hurt us, that upset us, that make us angry.

HINOJOSA: Nancy Rabinowitz that invited Churchill to the campus.

NANCY RABINOWITZ, PROFESSOR, HAMILTON COLLEGE: The irony is that this was a conversation that was to be held about the limits of dissent. And now we see the limits enforced by the terrorist threat of violence.

HINOJOSA: The debate also continued on the pages of the campus newspaper, which questioned whether a college should let violence silence speech.

BRITTEN CHASE, COLUMNIST, "SPECTATOR": People can threaten violence now. And they can have an impact on what will be said on the college campus.

HINOJOSA: Even Matthew Coppo is unhappy with the outcome.

COPPO: It is the worst possible ending to this whole thing. I mean, if he had come, it almost would have been better just for we would have his free speech. And we would probably have a silent vigil just honoring everyone who died. And no violence whatsoever was -- no one wanted any violence. And for this -- for it to end this way was pretty terrible.

Maria Hinojosa, CNN, Clinton, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MANN: We take a break. When we come back, Ward Churchill responds.

Stay with us.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHURCHILL: I'm not backing up an inch. I owe no one an apology, clarification, nothing. And what I said was when you treat people this way, when you devalue, demean and degrade others to this point, naturally and inevitably what you're putting out will blow back on you. And that's what happened.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: Universities in the United States were challenged and in some cases changed by the `60s. Their students came of age during the war in Vietnam and the campus protests against it. Students today are too young to remember that era. In university communities across the country, the people who do recall that time best are now the teachers.

Welcome back.

A lot of Americans see universities as the right home for debate and dissent. A lot of educators and people everywhere believe that independent and thoughtful education demand it. Would they agree with what Ward Churchill has been saying? Here is part of what he said to Paula Zahn.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: Professor, I wanted to start off by reading a part of your essay. You say that it has been distorted since you wrote it. And I want to read, specifically, what you wrote about September 11, 2001.

Quote, "The Pentagon building and those inside compromise military targets, pure and simple. As those in the World Trade Center, they were civilians of a sort, but innocent? Give me a break.

"They formed a technocratic core at the very heart of America's global financial empire, to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved. And they did so both willingly and knowingly."

Then you go on to say, "If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting the participation upon the little Eichmann's inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the Twin Towers, I'd be interesting in hearing about it."

Those are direct quotes from your essay. You have described it as stream of consciousness writing right after the attacks. Are there any words you would change in that today?

CHURCHILL: Actually, not. I would probably add a few words to explain the meaning of the "little Eichmanns" phrase. But in terms of changing it, I wouldn't. The reference was to the thesis on banality of evil that was produced by Hannah Arendt a long time ago and which is a standard reference work.

ZAHN: Let's come back to your "little Eichmann" comment for a moment. We're going to put that back up on the screen so you can help us understand what you really meant.

In essence you're calling the 9/11 victims "little Eichmann," referring to Adolf Eichmann, of course, who organized the deportation of Jews into the concentration camps. Can you understand why 9/11 families are outraged by this, as well as anybody who has any experience with the Holocaust?

CHURCHILL: Actually, I think you're wrong in some part on both counts. But, yes, in general, I can understand the sense of outrage and that's what I was attempting to engender.

I wanted to engender a response comparable to that experienced then manifested by peoples elsewhere when they are treated in a similar fashion as a matter of course in the United States.

ZAHN: How can you possibly equate...

(CROSSTALK)

CHURCHILL: And quite a number of Holocaust.

ZAHN: Professor, how can you possibly equate the activities going on in the World Trade Center, people waiting on tables at the Windows on the World Restaurant, police officers on duty that day, stockbrokers, with the actions of Adolf Eichmann?

CHURCHILL: You are, I believe, mixing apples and oranges there.

ZAHN: I'm just reading what you wrote.

CHURCHILL: I don't believe that there is any -- any reasonable definition by which you can consider a food service worker or janitor or even a fireman or a random passerby as being a member of a technocratic core.

How do you to define pushing a broom as being a technical operation? It was rather clearly stated who I was talking about.

ZAHN: How do you say that, sir? I'm going to put that back up one more time on the screen.

CHURCHILL: OK.

ZAHN: I'm curious how you think of someone reading this would see any differentiation between anybody working in the building that day. I mean, basically you said befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the Twin Towers.

CHURCHILL: And immediately before that I had made reference to a technocratic core. Is there a definition that I'm unaware of by which a janitor becomes a technician? Or a food service worker become a technician of empire?

It's reasonably restrictive articulation. It could perhaps be clearer.

(CROSSTALK)

CHURCHILL: But basically we're dealing with the people who.

ZAHN: But what could you say tonight to make that clearer? What would you want people to understand?

CHURCHILL: The people who perform the technical functions that results in the impoverishment, immiseration and ultimately the deaths of millions in order to maximize profit. And I don't believe that there is any reasonable definition by which food service workers, firemen, janitors, children, random passerby, fit that definition. And it is clearly articulated. You just read it.

But I would have gone further to explain the Eichmann reference, to be in the terms framed by Hannah Arendt, that Eichmann was essentially a bureaucrat, a technician. He killed no one, but he performed technical functions with a great degree of proficiency and full knowledge that the outcome of his endeavor would be essentially mass murder.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MANN: Ward Churchill, speaking to CNN's Paula Zahn.

Almost 3,000 people were killed in the September 11 attacks. The victims came from more than 80 countries.

Bradley Blakeman lost his 26-year-old nephew Thomas. He was trying to rescue people from the inferno when the Twin Towers came down. Bradley Blakeman joins us now.

Thanks so much for being with us.

What do you think of when you hear what Professor Churchill has been saying?

BRADLEY BLAKEMAN, NEPHEW KILLED ON 9/11: What I think is he's a very sick individual who is hiding in an institution where he thinks he has a safe harbor to spew his hate and bigotry and, quite frankly, the regents at Colorado have a very easy decision to make, and that is fire this guy as quickly as possible and get him out of the system and get him the help he needs.

MANN: Well, there are people who will say that these are the opinions of a sane however marginal man, and as a sane figuring working in an academic institution he is entitled to the tenure that he has earned and he is entitled to full academic freedom. That's the deal.

BLAKEMAN: Academic freedom and freedom of speech are not absolutely rights. They're qualified rights. The same as you can't yell "fire" in a theatre, you can't have a professor, especially at a time of war, encouraging further acts of violence.

Ward Churchill is proud of the fact that he said -- he says that future 9/11s may be necessary. It's outrageous. And you cannot hide under academic freedom and freedom of speech when you spew hatred and encourage violence.

MANN: I want to approach this very, very gently, because you lost someone you loved in these attacks.

BLAKEMAN: Sure.

MANN: Probably the most reasonable version of what he is saying is, roughly, as follows: that the United States supports allies around the world that are tyrannies, that mistreat their own people, and that the people who make it possible for the United States to do that, the people who run this country, who lead its economy, are in a sense complicit.

The truth is, there are people around the world who think that's right. What would you say to them?

BLAKEMAN: Outrageous. I spent the last four years as a member of President Bush's senior staff. I was in the White House prior to 9/11 and served after 9/11. I was in senior staff meetings. I heard what went on firsthand after the attacks on 9/11 and before and the way our government comported itself.

We live in the freest and the most open society in the world. The United States did not bring this upon itself. The United States brings comfort and aid and support to millions of people throughout the world. We didn't deserve this. And I am very, very proud of what our administration has done after 9/11. I saw it. I was there. And if I thought our government was not acting properly, I would have been the first one to question their actions, and I am proud every minute of the day of what this administration has done.

MANN: Fair enough.

So why do you think there are professors -- and we saw a few of them in the reporting that we have seen -- why do you think there are students who are defending this professor?

BLAKEMAN: Unfortunately, professors, who are seen as authority figures, have somewhat of a cult following. But that doesn't make it right.

The fact of the matter is, tax money is used to pay this guy's salary. He is influencing young people, who are a captive audience. These folks cannot stand up and disagree with this guy without retribution of a grade. As a matter of fact, it was reported in the "New York Post" that when a student did go up against him, her grade suddenly fell from an A to a C- when she questioned his Indian heritage.

So this guy is an authoritative figure in a school of higher learning who spews hatred and violence. There is no place for that in the United States.

MANN: Do you think there has been any practical harm done or is this just a theoretic problem?

BLAKEMAN: Sure there is harm done. There is harm done to the institution of higher learning in Colorado. There has been harm done to the memories of the 3,000-plus victims who died on 9/11, to our brave men and women who are fighting for our freedom every day and the freedom of others.

This will have a lasting effect and it's a terrible, terrible tragedy that this guy is still on the job.

MANN: Let me ask you just one last question. There are people who will say that the reason he should remain on the job is because of what happened on 9/11, that the United States stands for broad notions of freedom and freedom of speech is primary among them, that he in fact is testimony to why this country perseveres. What do you say?

BLAKEMAN: I say there are limits, as I said before, to freedom of speech. It is not an absolute right, and when you cross the line, as this guy did, and spew hatred and violence and bigotry and encourage other acts of violence against our people, unacceptable. Freedom of speech ends at that point, and this guy can go out on a street corner and espouse his beliefs without any fear of retribution, but tax dollars should not be used to fund this guy's salary.

MANN: Bradley Blakeman, thanks so much for this.

BLAKEMAN: Thank you.

MANN: We take another break. When we come back, did the 9/11 attacks silence voices of dissent in the United States?

Stay with us for that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MANN (voice-over): Two students at a high school in Oakland, California got a surprise visit a year-and-a-half ago from the Secret Service, the agency that protects the life of the president. A teacher turned them in after she said she heard them threaten George Bush during their English class.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We don't want federal agents or police coming in our schools, interrogating our children, just at the whim of someone who has a hunch something might be wrong. I don't think that is good.

MANN: In Colorado, Secret Service agents questioned a high school principal after a school band allegedly changed the words of an old song in a way considered threatening as well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's just some kinds in a band playing a Bob Dylan song in the talent show.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MANN: Welcome back.

The creation of the Department of Homeland Security was the largest reorganization of the U.S. government since World War II. The Bush administration gave itself new powers of law enforcement and surveillance in the USA Patriot Act, and the climate in the country has changed, at least a little.

There are people in the United States who say the capacity to disagree has been diminished, that opposition is viewed as unsafe or un- American.

A short time ago, we asked our senior political analyst Bill Schneider to weigh in on Ward Churchill and where things stand.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, I wouldn't say that America has lost its taste for or even support for dissent. There are plenty of people who dissented from Bush's policies on the war on Iraq. Almost half the country voted against President Bush.

What Ward Churchill wrote some years ago and recently came to light is pretty outrageous. I mean, this pushes the farthest extremes of dissent.

Look, there are two events which are beyond comparison, which are unique events. One is 9/11 and the other is the Holocaust, and he managed to combine the two of them in a really outrageous statement.

MANN: Now, when we ignore him for the moment and talk about the country and its concerns as a whole, there is the USA Patriot Act, which the administration wants to extent. There is a new attorney general who has been accused by his critics of being a little bit soft on terror or at least not vocal in his opposition -- not terror, forgive me. Torture, or at least not vocal in opposition to it when it was put to him.

There is going to be a new secretary of Homeland Security who has in the past been accused of taking part in policy planning that aimed at increasing surveillance on religious organizations and other private groups that had done no criminal activity.

Do you think the government -- do you think the American people are more suspicious of their presumed or suspected enemies now?

SCHNEIDER: Well, I think they are. I think this all comes out of 9/11. Look, the United States was attacked, and out of that attack came some paranoia and some fear, and it's manifested in the political arena.

But, look, this is not the McCarthy Era. In the McCarthy Era, dissent was suppressed. People's lives and careers were ruined. I don't think Ward Churchill is a good example of that -- people trying to ruin his career -- but, again, he really pushed the outer extremities of dissent. This is not happening on a large scale basis, widespread, the way it did during the McCarthy Era.

Every policy, Jon, every policy that you named -- the Patriot Act, the new attorney general, the new Department of Homeland Security secretary -- every one of those people, every one of those policies, is intensely controversial. It is debated -- Democrats have spoken up and administration critics have been very vocal. The fact that they are controversial in the United States means we're not in the McCarthy Era.

MANN: Bill Schneider, thanks very much.

SCHNEIDER: Sure.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MANN: And that's INSIGHT for today. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.

END

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