Hamilton College is facing criticism -- on its own campus and from many others -- over its speaking invitation to a professor who rejects the idea that the Americans killed on 9/11 were innocent victims.
Ward Churchill, the professor, teaches ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In an online essay, he wrote that the hijackers on 9/11 did not "target innocent civilians."
Of those who worked in the World Trade Center, he wrote: "Let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire -- the 'mighty engine of profit' to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved -- and they did so both willingly and knowingly.... To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in -- and in many cases excelling at -- it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it."
In an interview last year with the magazine Satya, Churchill suggested that a repeat of 9/11 might have good results. Asked how to mobilize Americans out of their complacency, he said: "One of the things I've suggested is that it may be that more 9/11s are necessary. This seems like such a no-brainer that I hate to frame it in terms of actual transformation of consciousness. 'Hey those brown-skinned folks dying in the millions in order to maintain this way of life, they can wait forever for those who purport to be the opposition here to find some personally comfortable and pure manner of affecting the kind of transformation that brings not just lethal but genocidal processes to a halt.' They have no obligation -- moral, ethical, legal or otherwise -- to sit on their thumbs while the opposition here dithers about doing anything to change the system. So it's removing the sense of -- and right to -- impunity from the American opposition."
Churchill will appear at Hamilton to participate in a panel discussion February 3 on "Limits of Dissent?", sponsored by the college's Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society and Culture.
Many at the college object to the invitation.
Four professors, in a letter to the editor of Hamilton's student newspaper, The Spectator, argue that no one should be banned from speaking on campus, but that the college should think more carefully about whom it invites and pays to speak on campus.
"Surely, there are limits to a pedagogy of provocation," the professors wrote. "Otherwise, the co-curricular activities of the college would be a theater of the absurd. If Hamilton pays for an appearance by an apologist for the 9/11 terrorists in order to provoke students, why not pay for appearances by apologists for Theodore Kaczinski, Eric Rudolph, and Timothy McVeigh? How do we decide which specimens of real world intensity, immediacy, and ugliness are brought to campus?"
"No one wants controversial ideas vetoed by the loudest voices from on or off campus," they added. "Yet, in a world of endless possibilities of the good, the bad, and the ugly, the administration and faculty have an obligation to think carefully about how the opportunities we offer students contribute to our academic mission and to create structures that help us make wise choices."
The Syracuse Post-Standard reports that students at Hamilton have placed posters throughout the campus -- some in favor of the invitation and others opposed. The newspaper quoted Matt Coppo, a Hamilton student whose father died in the World Trade Center, as saying: "Knowing that I'm paying for a person to disrespect my father, it doesn't go over too well in my mind. It's hard to claim that it's free speech when you're slandering people who have been dead for three years."
In an interview Wednesday night, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, director of the center that invited Churchill to speak, said the controversy was very much about free speech. "Critical engagement with difficult matters" is part of what college should be about, she said. She invited critics and skeptics of Churchill to attend his talk and ask him tough questions.
She said it was wrong for some people to suggest that Churchill's views were beyond the range of debate on a college campus. "He's not a terrorist," she said. "He has intellectual credentials and an argument to make."
College officials are defending the appearance. In a statement, the college said, "Hamilton, like any institution committed to the free exchange of ideas, invites to its campus people of diverse opinions, often controversial. The opportunity to encounter and respond to people from outside the college community in their intensity and their immediacy is among the key attributes of a liberal education. The views of speakers are their own. We expect, as a matter of civil discourse, that the members of this academic community, as well as visitors, respect the dignity of reasoned and principled debate."
The Churchill debate follows a similar fight at Hamilton in December over an invitation by the Kirkland Program to Susan Rosenberg, a 1960s radical who was convicted of weapons possession and who was in jail until President Clinton commuted her sentence. Rosenberg was to be an artist-in-residence teaching a seminar on memoir-writing. She withdrew from her plans to teach at Hamilton amid the controversy.
Rabinowitz said that she was surprised at the anger over Churchill because many of those who objected to the Rosenberg invitation told her they wouldn't have objected to her speaking on campus; they just didn't want her to teach.
Churchill was not in his office yesterday afternoon and his number in Colorado is unlisted. He did not reply to an e-mail message requesting an interview.