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Sunday, February 27, 2005

Reggie Rivers on Ward Churchill

Our Fragile Nation
by Reggie Rivers
I sometimes forget how fragile America is.

When I think about our 9.6 million square-kilometer landmass, our 280 million population, our $10 trillion economy, our enormous military, unique constitution, and our long-heralded commitment to the rule of law, I foolishly believe that we would be hard to destroy.

But many Coloradans, including Gov. Bill Owens, believe that our nation is so fragile that the words of Ward Churchill literally have the power to destroy us. Owens said recently, "Churchill has clearly called for violence against the state, and no country is required to subsidize its own destruction. That's what we're doing with Ward Churchill."

This fear has been repeated on talk radio and on the streets by people who sound extremely agitated and fearful that Churchill's words are effective. Generally, I don't think it's fair to cherry-pick small quotes from someone's statements and act as if that represents their complete thoughts on an issue, but since that's exactly what Churchill's detractors are doing, it seems fair to wonder what people mean by "destruction."

Words are powerful. The childhood retort, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me," isn't entirely true, because words can do great harm - but only when they're targeted at a particular person or a particular group, or if they slander, libel or incite immediate violence.

But words that are aimed at an entire nation or at past events are only harmful if they're tied to an action. As a professor, historian and commentator, Churchill makes observations based on research and his own biases. Sometimes he's right, sometimes he's wrong, but he's just one source of information. There's no need to silence him, because there are many other sources.

Churchill's accusers seem to be most concerned about his words that are aimed at the future. They say Churchill wants to destroy the United States and, apparently, they believe that he has the power to do so. They believe that if the taxpayers continue to finance him, we will be destroyed.

If Churchill actually has this power, it isn't apparent. Unless I missed something, he hasn't been accused of committing acts of violence. In fact, when he was arrested with dozens of other protesters at last year's Columbus Day Parade, he was committing nonviolent civil disobedience. And, as far as we can tell, his words haven't inspired anyone else to commit violence, either.

If his words are not connected to an action, then they're just words. In 1748, French philosopher Montesquieu wrote, "Speech does not form a corpus delicti: It remains only an idea ... . How, then, can one make speech a crime of high treason? Wherever this law is established, not only is there no longer liberty, there is not even its shadow ... . Speech becomes criminal only when it prepares, when it accompanies, or when it is followed by a criminal act."

No one is talking about charging Churchill with a crime. His accusers just want to see him fired from his job at CU. Isn't that interesting? Here's a guy who the governor and countless others honestly believe is in the process of destroying us, yet they don't want him to be arrested or thrown in jail. They merely want to kick him off the state payrolls so that we don't have to finance our own destruction.

We need to remember that we're not defined by our population, our landmass, our military, our leaders or our critics. We're defined by our ideas. We hold dear the idea that people should be free to think and speak without fear of state retribution. When we lose sight of our ideals and start to persecute people because they say objectionable things, that's the moment at which we're financing our own destruction.

Former Denver Broncos player Reggie Rivers writes Fridays on the Denver Post op-ed page.


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