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Churchill Case & Morality Dilemma: Lessons from the Bertrand Russell Case

by Alamgir Hossain

09 Feb, 2005

Professor Ward Churchill of University of Colorado at Boulder who raised a furor by his comments on 9/11 attack of Twin Tower in New York, which finally lead his resignation (AP, 31/01/2005) from the post of department chairman but kept his job as a teacher. The major contentious points he made about the fateful 9/11 tragedies are:

  1. Churchill termed the victims of 9/11 attack "not innocent". He wrote, "True enough, they were civilians of a sort.  But innocent? Gimme a break." 
  2. Churchill praised the 9/11 attack and paid glowing tribute to the "suicide team" calling their actions as "gallant sacrifice".
  3. He further termed the 9/11 victims of World Trade Center as Nazis as he called them "little Eichmanns" - a reference to Adolph Eichmann who executed Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews.
These comments were bound to incite great controversy and furor. Although his comments initially went rather unnoticed but was reignited when he was invited to Hamilton College in New York to deliver a lecture where hundreds of relatives of 9/11 victims protested his invitation. Colorado State Senator Shawn Mitchell opined, "I think the professor's words are repugnant and plain looney." Hamilton College President Joan Hinde initially defended Churchill invitation saying, "however repugnant one might find Mr. Churchill's remarks, the college was committed to his right of free speech and would not rescind its invitation." However, the mob verdict prevailed and his invitation to Hamilton College was cancelled.

The controversy didn't stop there. Back in University of Colorado, his work place, it became so controversial hat he had to resign from his position of Chairman of Colorado's Ethnic Studies Department. He told the university officials in his resignation letter: "the present political climate has rendered me a liability in terms of representing either my department, the college, or the university." University officials welcomed the move. Interim CU-Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano said, "While Professor Churchill has the constitutional right to express his political views, his essay on 9/11 has outraged and appalled us and the general public."

This contentious issue has brought the issue of right for Freedom of Speech into the limelight. Freedom of Speech was achieved through immense sacrifices centuries ago in Europe. It was introduced in the French constitution more than 2 hundred years ago, following the French Revolution which means, "One should have the right to express his/her opinion so long, it doesn't cause physical harm to another person." It should be considered that "Freedom of Speech" was instituted to protect an individual from prosecution and harm for expressing harmless opinions, that is, to serve human society better. Maximum efforts must be made to uphold this fine achievement of human civilization.

But it now appears that Freedom of Expression, Civil Liberty and Democracy etc., which the Western society devised centuries ago at great sacrifices, as a guide to serve the society better, is now turning to be the bane of their existence. Had America been a country like any Islamic country, where no such things like Free Speech, Civil Liberty and Democracy exist, the 9/11 tragedy could not have happened. I personally believe that there is nothing more sacrosanct than the life of an innocent citizen. Any state must put the onus of saving citizen's life on top of everything. If the State has to scrap democracy, free-speech and civil liberty in order to save innocent lives, state must do that. These socio-political elements of modern society could be the finest achievement of human civilization but they have, unfortunately, become untenable today - at least in the interim. Surely, Islamic extremism has put immense strain on the Western society, taking advantage of these fine human achievements that are present in those societies. If they tend to work as a tool for murdering the innocent, there shouldn't be any objection against scrapping them, at least, in the interim, if not permanently. Any system that would ensure better safety to citizens' life should adopted.

About Churchill's comments on the 9/11 victims and comparing them with the Nazis - this is a very contentious issue and surely raise the question of morality of Churchill's comments. However, the resignation of Prof. Churchill would remind one the famous incident of Bertrand Russell's dismissal from appointment as a Professor at the City College, New York (1940-41) on the ground of morality. The campaign against Russell's appointment at the City College centered on his alleged lack of morality since he supported premarital sex, advocated for condoning adultery to certain extent instead of mandatory divorce and his being an atheist. As his invitation for appointment at City College was announced, it raised furor amongst the New Workers, politicians and jurors, which included all sorts of defamatory remarks and name-calling from all quarters. The Tablet editorial demanded dismissal of his appointment describing Russell as a "Professor of Paganism, Philosophical anarchist and moral nihilist of Great Britain". The Jesuit Weekly, America, referred Russell as, "a desiccated, divorced and decadent advocate of sexual promiscuity who has betrayed his mind and conscience." Reverend John Schultz, Professor of Sacred Eloquence at the Redemptorist Seminary at Esopus (New York), described Russell as a, "mastermind of free love, of sex promiscuity for the young and of hatred for the parents". Referring to Russell as a "dog", Councilman Charles Keegan remarked that, "if we had an adequate system of immigration, that bum could not have landed within a thousand miles." But now that he has landed, Miss Martha Byrnes, the registrar of NY County, told the audience, what do we do with the "dog"? Russell, she shouted, should be "tarred, feathered and driven out of the country". Amongst a deluge of uncountable insults and slanders against Russell, a Mrs. Jean Kay's (of Brooklyn) Lawsuit against Russell's appointment got celebrity attention whereby she declared herself concerned over what might happen to her daughter, Gloria, if she were to become Russell's student. In court, Mrs. Kay's lawyer Joseph Goldstein described Russell's work as "lecherous, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, irreverent, narrow-minded, unfaithful and bereft of moral fiber."

Most of the genius scientists, academicians and philosophers of his time, including Whitehead, Einstein, Dewey, Shapley and Kasner et al., rallied behind Russell. Einstein wrote in his letter of support:

"Great spirit have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence."

Yet democracy, which should be characterized as "mob fanaticism" in this case, prevailed and Russell's appointment was disallowed by a judge arguing, "Russell was unfit to teach" amongst many other judgments on moral issues. The fact is that the judge didn't have any expertise in the subjects Russell was to teach at City College and Russell in his later essay "Freedom of the College", argued that whether someone is fit to teach a particular subject or not, should be judged by an expert on the subject, not an ignorant judge. However, world was proved wrong in less than 10 years when Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1950. And the Western society whole-heartedly adopted his much despised radical ideas on moral issues in 20-30 years.

Given that the ethicists were proved wrong in case of Russell, Prof. Churchill case also brings in a similar ethical question to the picture. Surely, the ethicists who rallied for Churchill's relief from teaching would ask: how could one justify the acts of the 9/11 attackers and calling this murderous act as "gallant sacrifice" by the "suicide team" whilst calling the victima Nazis? The ethicists would surely say: no, no-one has a way to justify those horrendous acts of human tragedies and glorify them as great acts of sacrifice on part of the perpetrators. Of course, the New York moralists in 1940/41 also made the similar moral arguments: you cannot allow or advocate immoral acts like premarital sex or condone despicable act of adultery. But now premarital sex has become a rather desired social behavior between adult unmarried male and female, whilst adultery even has been accepted as an almost innocuous human behavior and the society is living in better justice, peace and harmony than ever before.

Since, the ethicists of 1940-41 were proved completely wrong in less than a decade - we must learn from our lessons from the Russell incidence and decide a verdict on the Churchill case. So, the questions we need ask are:

* If the ethicists who engineered Churchill's ouster would be proved wrong in 10, 20, 50, 100 or a thousand years. That is: Is the civilized society going to accept the actions of the 9/11 attackers as just another innocuous human behavior in 10, 100 or 1000 years?

* Is the world going to give a guilty verdict on the victim who perished with the Twin Tower?

* Is the world going to glorify masterminds of actions, like the 9/11 attacks, as "gallant heroes?"

* Is a world, filled with the people of the like of 9/11 attackers, going to be desirable in 10, 100 or 1000 years?

The bottom line is that Professor Churchill, who didn't only rendered a guilty verdict on the victims of the 9/11 and glorified the action of 9/11 attackers as "gallant sacrifice", thereby, accepting them as his great hero. Which means, Professor Churchill would be most delighted to live in a society infested with people of the mindset of 9/11 attackers. But the majority of the Americans, except Churchill supporters, aren't ready to live in that kind of society. And it appears that democracy has prevailed once again. Following nasty incident of Russell's dismissal from teaching in City College, he wrote an essay on this rather vicious aspect of democracy, which he termed "mob hysteria". He said,

"The man who has the art of arousing the witch-hunting instincts of the mob has a quite peculiar power for evil in a democracy, where the habit of exercise of power by the majority, has produced that intoxication and impulse to tyranny...."

Morality is such a fragile and in most cases a groundless thing - the Bertrand Russell Case is a shining example of that. Had this scribe been living there in New York Area at that time, it was most like that he would have rallied behind the "moralist mob" to seek Russell's ouster. It is just because that Russell's advocacy in favor of premarital sex and condoning adultery etc. amongst others seemed undeniable immorality during those days. No-one, except a few vagrants, might have thought that Russell's immorality would be accepted by societies as part normal human behavior in just a couple of decades. These mob moralists once again thought that it is not going to be desirable to see the world get infested by the people of the mentality of 9/11 attackers. This scribe also thinks that it was the grossest disrespect to human dignity to term the 9/11 victims of Twin Tower attack as criminal or guilty. In summary, Prof. Churchill's comments on the 9/11 incident, on the perpetrators and on the victims were grossly unethical. Once again, ethics is a rather fragile and groundless thing - but still human society seek to set an ethical standard for that time which has lead to Prof Churchill's removal. Democracy has prevailed - for a good reason or not - we can only talk now and history will surely judges as was in the case of Russell. Sure, Churchill could be awarded Nobel Prize for his works on the 9/11 tragedy like Russell was got it for the advocacy of apparent immorality. We have to wait and see.

One thing however I should be made clear that Prof Churchill's work was grossly flawed. He hardly had any idea of the ideology or the mentality that drove the 9/11 "suicide brigade" into the Twin Tower of New York. He should have spent some time studying or investigating what is driving the fanatics kill, torture and bomb innocent people in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and where not. He should have spent time investigating as to why Palestinians are sending human bombs to destroy Israel whilst Hindus are still sacrificing blood and flesh despite the fact that their country was divided by an unfair demand from the Muslims. And surely, Hindus in India are not sending suicide bomb to destroy Pakistan - but in stead, the opposite is happening there. Surely, Prof Churchill because of his ignorance and insufficient homework, made those comments. But given his position and the gravity and sensitivity of the incidence - he shouldn't have indulged in so much of speculation which is groundless at best. And of course, he had opportunities to investigate his hypothesis, which he didn't do either - as I suppose. It is imperative for him to understand now that his understanding of the ideology behind the 9/11 attack is grossly flawed. Muslims are an "oppressed people" in the world is a gross misconception but instead Muslims are the "greatest oppressors" of other religious sects in our world today. This Prof. Churchill can easily find out these simple facts by traveling across the Muslims countries and looking at the treatment and plight of the minority religious people.

Prof Churchill's fate has been determined and he, be reinstated to his position or not, he still has a moral responsibility to apologize for his comments on 9/11 attack victims, which is the grossest disrespect for the human ethics and dignity modern society thrives on. More ominously, his comments would only incite Jihadi fanaticism and help get new recruits to Islamic suicide squads putting more innocent people's life at peril.

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