The Berrigans

The Berrigans

As Focal Points readers no doubt have heard, on July 29, three peace activists, representing a modern-day version of the original Plowshares peace group founded by the Berrigan brothers, penetrated the highest-security area of the Y-12 nuclear weapons facility for uranium storage and nuclear modernization in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The New York Times reported:

Inside the complex, the three graying pacifists painted “Woe to the empire of blood” and “the fruit of justice is peace” on the exterior of Y-12’s Highly-Enriched Uranium Manufacturing Facility, and splashed what they said was human blood.

… But despite what appears to have been a slow crawl through the defenses (the three had bolt cutters, hammers, flashlights and cans of spray paint, and went under the fences), they did not draw a prompt response.

In fact,

… they apparently spent several hours in the Y-12 National Security Complex before they were stopped — by a lone guard, they told friends — as they used a Bible and candles in a Christian peace ritual.

Consequently, the actual anti-nuclear activism was eclipsed by the outcry about the poor plant security that the terrorists exposed, as if they were only practicing a dry run for terrorists. But that comes with the territory for those who engage in extreme acts of terrorism. Perhaps attention to Transform Now Plowshares’ mission can be refocused during the trial. Along with a misdemeanor, each of the three is charged with two felonies.

Adding insult to plant-security injury is that one of them, Megan Rice, is not only a nun, but 82 years old. At his Knoxville News Y-12 blog Atomic City Underground, Frank Munger wrote:

I communicated with Frank von Hippel, a Princeton University professor who’s been in the forefront of nuclear policy work for decades with a special focus on control and protection of special nuclear materials, about the recent break-in. … “This should indeed be an embarrassment,” von Hippel responded via email. “An 82-year-old nun with a bolt cutter is certainly within the post-9/11 design-based threat envelope.”

One would think, but as mentioned above, that’s not Transform Now Plowshares’ concern. Sister Rice (Sister Megan?) has been an anti-nuclear, as well as more broad-based, activist for decades and once served six months in a minimum-security prison for a 1998 protest at the one-time School of the Americas. On August 11, at the New York Times, William J. Broad reported on Sister Rice’s reaction to her incarceration.

“It was a great eye-opener,” she said. “When you’ve had a prison experience, it minimizes your needs very much.”

Of nuns’ acts of civil disobedience in general,* Broad wrote:

They also illustrate the fierce independence of Catholic nuns, who met this week in St. Louis to decide how to respond to a Vatican appraisal that cast them as rebellious dissenters.

“We’re free as larks,” Sister Rice said of herself and her older religious friends. “We have no responsibilities — no children, no grandchildren, no jobs.”

… “She’s a pretty sympathetic character,” Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, said of the nun. “[A 16-year prison term] would be signing her death warrant.”

…“So the lot fell on us,” she said of fighting nuclear arms. “We can do it.”

In a sense, Sister Rice is absolving the rest of us disarmament advocates, who have families and bills to pay, of acts that require substantial sacrifices. Though she adds, “But we all do share the responsibility equally.”

We live in a time when arms control is being overtaken by creeping incrementalism. As Andrew Lichterman wrote recently for Reaching Critical Will:

US arms control and disarmament groups focus mainly on preventing the expansion of nuclear weapons capabilities and budgets, or on taking advantage of what are perceived as opportunities for incremental progress. The common denominator is that the limits to the disarmament agenda are set by what is thought to be achievable in government for a without challenging anything fundamental about the existing order of things, or the role of US military forces in sustaining it.

Activism, such as the Y-12 break-in, or when the Berrigans and the original Plowshares movement trespassed onto the General Electric Nuclear Missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, in 1980, damaged nuclear warhead nose cones, and poured blood onto documents and file, doesn’t exactly endear itself to the American public. Aside from raising the prospect of a terrorist attack, it violates an ethos arguably more sacrosanct to much of the American public than averting mass destruction — respect for property.

But, along with Sister Rice, her fellow Transform Now Plowshares members Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed hold out the gauntlet to nuclear-disarmament activists (such as this author). What are we willing to sacrifice to abolish nuclear weapons?

*For some reason, in 2005, the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project, funded by the Department of Energy, felt compelled to include an interview with her. It serves as a fascinating case study in how a social-justice conscience is nurtured and becomes self-sustaining.

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