About a month ago, when Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were in the news -- one for coming out of hiding, the other for going into hiding by taking a job on Wall Street -- two other figures from the antiwar protests of the 1960s were also in action: Daniel and Philip Berrigan. Along with six others, the Berrigans entered a General Electric missile assembly plant in King of Prussia, Pa., to expose and protest the making of nuclear weapons.
The striking contrasts between the actions of the Berrigans and those of Hoffman and Rubin are worth thinking about, because both the strengths and weaknesses of American radicalism were graphically on view.
Hoffman and Rubin, who always aroused suspicions that they were clownish figures adept at self-promotion, have indeed turned out to possess the substance of funnymen playing to the cameras.
Hoffman's recent "return to society" was timed with the publication date of his new book. The surfacing was an event of such cosmic proportions that he even conned Barbara Walters into trooping to the north woods for a chat. It was one of many "exclusive" interviews given by Hoffman. The prankster's new cause, he wanted us to know, is environmentalism. He's been saving some islands in the St. Lawrence River. He's into solar, too.
Though he didn't have a new book to hawk, Rubin was in print with an op-ed piece in The New York Times. Wall Street is where the action is now; the great war protestor who once wanted to make peace would now like to make profits.
Should anyone be tempted to think that the selflessness of Hoffman and Rubin had declined in the past 10 years, each assured us that they are still as dedicated as ever to zapping all that's wrong with America -- or Amerika, as they wanted it to be known in their press conferences of the '60s.
Up against the bright blazes of these two showy characters, the Berrigans' raid on the GE plant came off as a dim flame. Not only has no one of Barbara Walters' rank gone near the group since it was arrested and slapped into jail, but few news stories have appeared.
It's just as well. The Berrigans' idealism and pacifism aren't reducible to a few paragraphs of newspaper copy.
In fact, all a reporter needed to do was look up the old clippings in the Berrigans' file and see that what they did as the King of Prussia Eight was the same as their actions as the Catonsville Nine and the Harrisburg Seven. Nothing has changed. They aren't into the new fall fashions of causes: installing solar catchpans on the roof or saving capitalism from the capitalists.
If the Berrigans haven't changed, the only question worth asking -- at least to determine if they are men of conscience and peace or merely out-of-date rebels -- is whether American militarism has changed since the 1960s. It hasn't. The fever for weapons and the projection of evil onto the Soviet Union has reached an intensity never known during the Vietnam War years.
The difference now and the '60s is that without a war on the evening news or soldier's coffins being carried into Arlington cemetery, the public has little sense that the vast military machine is driven to new excesses. This lack of focus means that the issues have become clinical. Much of the debate about the MX missile, for example, has been coolly dispassionate: the danger is not that these weapons are mass-destructive and suicidal but that their construction sites will harm the ecology of Utah.
When officialdom in Washington speaks of the "Soviet threat" and announces that the United States has fallen to the disgrace of being No. 2, someone like Philip Berrigan comes off as raging: he says that defense contractors like General Electric are "deeply implicated in crimes against God and humanity by production of nuclear overkill." He sounds mad. He is to be locked up.
And when he gives no indication of repentance, as he did not when he and his brother and six others raided the GE plant to spill some blood and bang hammers on the nose cone of a missile, then lock him away hard -- like up to 64 years in prison, which Philip Berrigan now faces.
In Studs Terkel's new book, "American Dreams," John Howard Griffin speaks of heroic citizens like the Berrigans: "The world has always been saved by an Abrahamic minority. . . . There have always been a few who, in time of great trouble, became keenly aware of the underlying tragedy: the needless destruction of mankind. This minority overdoes, gives every ounce, to compensate for the lack of awareness in the majority."