Thursday, February 03, 2005

"Little Eichmanns" - Part I

"Well, I guess he had it coming."

"We all got it coming, kid."

-- Unforgiven (1992)

Some remarks are no fun to defend. Case in point. Calling the victims of the World Trade Center attacks "little Eichmanns."

That's sure not a perspective that would have dawned on me but for Ward Churchill. When I think about the dead of 9/11 I think about it mostly through the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen's The Rising--to my mind the first great piece of art to emerge from that cataclysm. In The Rising, the dead are portrayed primarily as loved ones:

The Virginia hills have gone to brown
Another day, another sun goin' down
I visit you in another dream
I visit you in another dream

I reach and feel your hair
Your smell lingers in the air
I brush your cheek with my fingertips
I taste the void upon your lips
And I wait for paradise
And I wait for paradise

Or as heroes, like the Christ figure fireman in the title track, who sacrifices his life trying to save others.

That's how I want to remember them: as loved ones and heroes.

It's how America has generally remembered them. And America has dealt tenderly with their families--except, of course, those who too stridently insisted on a full accounting of the intelligence failures that led to the disaster. That was kinda gauche of them, really. One could point especially to Bill O'Reilly's famous meltdown last summer with Jeremy Glick, a critic of American foreign policy whose father perished on 9/11. O'Reilly was apoplectic that Glick had signed an anti-war advertisement that included the passage, "We too watched with shock the horrific events of September 11. . . we too mourned the thousands of innocent dead and shook our heads at the terrible scenes of carnage -- even as we recalled similar scenes in Baghdad, Panama City, and a generation ago, Vietnam."

A few years ago I heard historian Ira Berlin remark that the difference between history and memory is that history is subject to critical discussion but public memory is not. The 9/11 families who demanded a full accounting of the intelligence failure, the organization Peaceful Tomorrow, which came up with that antiwar advertisement, young Jeremy Glick, and now Ward Churchill have all butted up against the public memory of 9/11.

The victims of 9/11 were innocent victims of an innocent nation and, buster, don't you forget it.


Except the United States is not an innocent nation, because there are no innocent nations.

Except the victims of 9/11 were not innocent victims, because no one is innocent.

Just ask Jonathan Edwards.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince.
That is, of course, a passage from Edwards's most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which flowed from a Calvinist understanding of theology in which there's not a dime's worth of difference between the best and the worst of us. The people who went to work at the World Trade Center that fatal morning were no better and no worse than any of us. But from God's perspective, Edwards would insist, that's not saying much.

We tolerate that kind of jeremiad from preachers when they talk about promiscuity and gay marriage and teletubbies. They can go too far, of course. As is notorious, Jerry Falwell briefly laid the blame for 9/11 at the door of "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'" The resulting furor forced him to apologize.

But apparently we don't and won't tolerate that sort of thing from a professor who wants to remind us that the political economic system served by many of the victims of 9/11 is a system that has hurt people, both here and abroad--hurt them enough, in his view, as to invite retribution. And that the people who served the system were like "little Eichmanns"--a reference to Eichmann's famous remark at his 1962 trial that he wasn't responsible for anything that happened in the death camps because his job was just to organize transport to the camps and what happened on the other side of the gates was not his concern.

Is it reasonable to make such a comparison? Is it reasonable to insist that each of us ask what our system does and how we each contribute to helping it operate? We don't really want to go there. We won't even entertain the thought, it's so scary. Better to say Churchill's analogy is in sorry ass taste, and he's a dick, and a poser, and not even a real Cherokee, the putz.

Continue to Part II.


Anonymous said...

I think the two biggest isssues (the only issues really) that I have with Prof. Churchill from my vantage point here in Colorado is how he chose to express himself. By using the phrase "little Eichmanns" to describe the unfortunates at the World Trade Center invalidates the utility of his argument: that the United States is the target of Middle Eastern terrorists because of its policies - whether mindless support for Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, or Saudi Arabian oppression of everyone not a member of the royal family.

Similarly, his description of the terrorists as "combat teams" elevates them to the realm of regulated and recognizable military personnel, which they most certainly were not. He also seems to be validating the use of terror tactics against unarmed civilian populations. If it is appropriate to condemn the United States for using terror tactics against civilians in Japan, Germany, or other places, then those same tactics should be condemned when used by other powers - terrorist or governmental.

It has been no fun at all having to support this jackass's First Amendment rights, and even worse to watch the Governor and a group of state legislators threaten CU with a $100,000 reduction in funding if the Regents don't force him out.


Anthony said...

I agree that it is important to defend the right to free speech in this instance.

However, I also think we need to be careful. Seems to me that it could become dangerously close to getting into what Marxists call "structural violence". This is a way of thinking that has long been used on the far left as a way of justifying attacks on civilians. So if you are, say, a bank clerk, you are guilty of committing "structural" violence against the masses by helping to prop up the capitalist system and the bank's unjust usuary. This is a very dangerous route to take in my view. In fact, I think it stinks.

That said, as somebody who has chronicled Union policy toward Southern civilians, perhaps Professor Grimsley would like to try to place this way of thinking into some sort of historical context - perhaps by way of the bombing raids in WW2. It's not something I've given a greatly in depth degree of thought to, I must say but perhaps something provocative and interesting could come out of it.

Zu said...

Trying to get a solid grip on this argument is kinda like trying to nail jello to a wall. On the one hand he's absolutely correct. The Pentagon was a valid military target and I never felt the intense rage over that part of 9/11 as I did with the WTC. And in some ways, lots of people in the towers were supporting the American imperialist machine.

On the other hand, in calling the victims "little Eichmanns" Mr. Churchill goes too far. It reminded me of the justification that Timothy McVeigh gave for the Oklahoma City Bombing, saying that it was like blowing up the Death Star and the "stormtroopers" that were good people were guilty by association with an evil empire.

Then again, if you step back and look at the attacks with a detached sense, they were actually brilliant strikes against an economic target and a military target, and the 4th plane was supposedly going to take out a command and control target. What was different between the hijacked planes and the bomber offensives of WWII? Does a uniform and a rank structure make it ok to target civilians? At this level Churchill is absolutely correct.

There is yet another layer. The US armed forces actively avoid attacking targets with civilians inside or nearby. If a squad is pinned down by sniper fire coming from a hotel or a mosque, the logical thing to do would be to call in air support. But there could be innocent (although they're not really innocent because no one is) people in the building, so the soldiers shoot and scoot up the street, taking casualties just to protect non-combatants. Our enemies seek to kill the maximum number of civilians. There is a difference in this case.

In the end I guess that it's just too fresh in our minds to take a long hard look at and coolly analyze the deaths of 3000 of our fellow Americans.

However, I still take issue with the "Little Eichmanns" line. While every philosophy under the sun has its own idea of good, wrong, and innocent, I believe that there are certainly moral absolutes. The firefighter that defied his impulse to run and instead sacrificed his life so that others may live, Father Mychal Judge who died while blessing the dead amidst the rubble, an office worker who carried a handicapped person to safety, these were all heroes on that day and none of them deserve to be called "Little Eichmanns"

Anonymous said...

"Is it reasonable to make such a comparison?" Even after supplying the context for this comparison (i.e., Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem), I am not convinced that this could be construed as his specific intent. Especially in an internet essay.

"Is it reasonable to insist that each of us ask what our system does and how we each contribute to helping it operate?" I suppose it is reasonable to ask, but it is unreasonable to expect anyone to provide a comprehensive answer to the question of "what our system does". No one currently is in possession of enough knowledge to answer, nor does anyone have sufficient time to acquire it. Only someone with the hubris to claim he understands the system (like, say, an Ethnic Studies professor) would try to explain it. And by explaining, he has undermined our confidence in his ability to understand it.

"We don't really want to go there. We won't even entertain the thought, it's so scary." I suggest you stay away from the Oscar Meyer display!

Anonymous said...

A brief refresher for those taking refuge in the newest "last refuge of scoundrals" (with apologies to Dr. Dr. Johnson).

Congress shall make no law infringing....

In short, private parties...Hamilton College, my living room, my dentist...have absolutely no obligation to support speech, no matter how unfavorable. As regards the University of Colorado, one wonders whether the current pious indignation would spew forth if Churchill had blamed argued that Holocaust victims had it coming, or slaves, or AIDS patients. I doubt it. Leftist pieties would be flowing in the opposite direction--"Hang 'em high."

Incidentally, Mr. Churchill has a criminal conviction (misdemeanor) for disrupting a Columbus Day parade. His defense? Because settlement of the New World amounted to genocide, the parade was tantamount to hate speech, and thus, Churchill was within his rights to silence it. (Story in today's Wall Street Journal).

On a website authored by an outstanding Civil War historian, I had expected something better...or at least more intellectually rigorous.


Anonymous said...

Zu wrote: "Then again, if you step back and look at the attacks with a detached sense, they were actually brilliant strikes against an economic target and a military target, and the 4th plane was supposedly going to take out a command and control target. What was different between the hijacked planes and the bomber offensives of WWII? Does a uniform and a rank structure make it ok to target civilians? At this level Churchill is absolutely correct."

Zu, I have a problem with this reasoning. Churchill in all likelihood has major problems with the way the US fought various indian tribes (i.e. destroy their food supply and non-combatant population base). The left waxes lyrical about how awful it is that the US would do such a thing. And that is fine. But if that is their standard, then let it be applied across the board. If it is repugnant to Churchill and company for their favorite doe eyed victims of western colonialism in the developing world to be targeted in this manner, then why is it somehow so laudable an act of "resistance" for a US civilian target (such as the WTC in NYC) to be hit in the same manner?

Just my personal sense, but in my view the farther left one goes on the spectrum here it seems that one's sense of morality begins and ends with condemnation of western (mis)deeds while those who speak a language other than English or Hebrew can commit any atrocity (whether against the west or their own population) without any possibility of Churchill or the like saying much.


Zu said...

The earlier comment was based off of news articles and blog essays, but now that I've read Churchill's essay, I can see your point. If he merely said that the hijackers were combat teams, I could agree, but he compares the courageous hijackers to cowardly B2 bomber crews.

There seem to be huge holes in his argument. He ignores the fact that Saddam was the one who let his people starve to death. He ignores the charitable contributions of America to the third world. He ignores the fact that American soldiers will go out of their way to avoid a civilian casualty while terrorists think a school gymnasium full of children is a priority target.

I don't know. All this talk about genocide and bombings... Sometimes I feel like George C. Scott in Patton when he waxes poetic about a duel between commanders that settles the whole war. I guess jousting has gone out of style.

Zu said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.