ARE THERE ANY "INNOCENT CIVILIANS?"

[As printed in the San Gabriel Valley Examiner, 2/24/2005]

Ward Churchill's days at the University of Colorado are numbered.  
Even tenure won't protect this outspoken pariah from some 
ill-chosen comments - his reference to the victims as "little 
Eichmanns" - following the heavy loss of life in the Twin Towers 
attack.  Critics, both liberal and conservative, are already 
applauding his anticipated firing by the university's board of 
regents.

With right-wing talk show hosts, neo-con columnists and 
reactionary bloggers trumpeting the Churchill case in their 
crusade to abolish tenure, liberal academics are more than 
willing to sacrifice him.  They see this as an opportunity to 
demonstrate that a tenured colleague can indeed be fired.  If 
Churchill gets the axe there's no need to junk the system.

Self-proclaimed "Native Americans" have also joined in, 
renouncing a long-time activist for their cause.  They, too, 
think that kicking Churchill will win them some points with that 
part of America whose only interest in Indians is the nearest 
casino.  But long after Churchill is gone the attack on tenure 
and the cold shoulder for Indian rights will remain.

Lost in the rush to see who can best trash the professor is the 
real issue in this brouhaha.  Churchill has raised the question, 
which no one else apparently wants to address:  Are there any 
"innocent civilians" in wartime?

Search the Internet for "innocent civilians" and over 400,000 web 
sites pop up, almost all anguishing over the death and injury to 
unoffending noncombatants. Speeches and columns by prominent 
names on both left and right - John Kerry and George W. Bush 
among them - plead that one side or the other has immorally, and 
in violation of all human dignity, attacked the innocent.  Jews, 
Muslims, Christians, the French, Americans, rebels and government 
forces - around the world - are all apparently guilty.

But are civilians innocent?  Churchill blamed workers in the Twin 
Towers for their complicity in the sins of corporations they 
worked for.  If in fact American business is responsible for 
poverty, peonage, low wages and inhuman working conditions 
outside the U.S., aren't employees of those companies 
participants in the evil created by their employers?  Since when 
does "only doing my job to provide for my family" justify 
abetting infamy?

Moreover, isn't one who lives in a democratic nation, where the 
people choose their leaders and cast votes for parties with 
specific economic and foreign policies, less "innocent" than 
those who live in an authoritarian or dictatorial government 
where policies are imposed on the people?  

Americans elect their presidents based on platforms the two major 
parties put forth.  The wrath of the Middle East has built up 
over decades in response to those policies, a product of both 
Republican and Democratic presidents.  

The Twin Towers were not attacked as a result of a change in 
policy brought about by the election of George W. Bush.  For 
eight years Bill Clinton aggressively pursued the isolation of 
Iraq, bombing the country like clockwork and enforcing sanctions 
which caused that wrath to grow.  Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and 
the first Bush alienated a large portion of the Middle East 
through political, military and economic actions that were 
interpreted as hostile by various ethnic populations throughout 
that region.

Since the American public freely chose those presidents and their 
policies, if the nation is guilty of crimes against humanity 
aren't we all guilty?  Or are we to excuse our participation in 
the rewards emanating from those policies - the standard of 
living we all cherish even if the average Joe's share is far less 
than that of a Halliburton C.E.O. - on grounds that we didn't 
know what effect our policies were having on the rest of the 
world?

And if we denounce the injury and slaughter of "innocent 
civilians," how do we explain American action in the past?  
During the Civil War General William Sherman justified the 
sacking of southern cities and destruction of civilian property 
with the theory of "collective responsibility."   And Harry 
Truman didn't blink at the agonizing death of children, women and 
old folks caused by dropping nuclear bombs on Japan in 1945.  Yet 
those who died there were far more innocent than Americans since 
they did not have a say in choosing the government of Japan.  

Apparently there is a time and place for the killing of "innocent 
civilians" and wounded enemy combatants.  Apparently Americans 
get a free pass on this one.

- - -
[Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly 
Pomona]