Civil disobedience was on trial the other day, and as usual it took a drubbing. A Norristown, Pa., judge sentenced Daniel Berrigan, Philip Berrigan, a Catholic priest, a Catholic sister and four others--the Plowshares Eight--to prison terms on burglary convictions. The Berrigans, described along with the others as "malcontents" by the judge, received three to 10 years, plus 10 years probation.
As burglars, this passel was not exactly in Willie Sutton's league. Unarmed and unmasked, last September they walked into a munitions plant of General Electric, a major contractor for nuclear weapons. They went to a Mark 12A nuclear missile nose cone and, with hammers in their hands and Isaiah on their minds, began beating it into a plowshare. Initial charges included violence and terroristic threats, but these were dropped after some GE employees called the group "non-violent and peaceful."
In Thoreau's essay, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," the citizen of true patriotism is the one who possesses the honesty and courage to take action when he believes his government is acting against the public good. This is the context in which the Berrigans symbolically sought to turn a nuclear weapon into an instrument of peace.
With the U.S. government on a war footing of unprecedented immensity--weapons systems like the MX being designed to protect other weapons systems, the House voting a 32 percent increase in spending for military weapons in 1982, a $1.5 trillion defense budget for the next five years--it's a cause for jubilation that a few holdouts of stout pacifist heart like the Berrigans assume a duty to be civilly disobedient.
They are burglarizing the storehouse of false security. Daniel Berrigan writes in "Ten Commendments for the Long Haul": "Everything in our history points to one dolorous conclusion: the eventual or prompt discharge of nuclear weapons. Indeed history is appallingly consistent with this outcome. No weapon, once conceived, ever rotted or rusted unused."
Both from the bench, and in a series of letters to observers of the trial (as reprinted in Christianity and Crisis magazine), the judge in this trial, Samuel W. Salus II, stated that a court was not the proper place to debate a nuclear holocaust. He went further. To one correspondent, he warned: "Don't be fooled by the broad sweep of inner conscience, justification and peace as asserted by these people. History has yet to prove them correct or their assertions sound in logic and experience. What it has proved is that they have tried this kind of thing eight times before with the same political arguments. It is part of their policy and tactics to delude people about their good in tentions when their sole purpose is to have no master, no government and, really, no God."
So, the burlgar-malcontents are godless, too. The judge's palaver aside, using the courts as a forum for questions of life and death is not a decision the Berrigans make lightly, as though three to 10 years in prison is worth a few moments of speechifying. Instead, the Berrigans argue that if allegations of criminality are the do main of the judicial, then why should the courts be off limits?
Four years ago, when Daniel Berrigan was before an Alexandria court on civil disobedience charges following a peaceful dustup at the Pentagon, he asked the judge: "Is it true by Nuremberg statute, as well as domestic law, that it is a criminal act to conspire to commit a crime? . . . We say the conspiracy is under way. The weapons are concocted. The plan is well advanced. . . . We claim that the most horrid crime in the history of humanity is being planned at the Pentagon : a conspiracy to Hiroshimize every city of the world, to pulverize and vaporize all flesh and bones. . . ."
Grisly talk, but not grislier than looking at the pictures of what American A-bombs did to citizens in two Japanese cities. If Berrigan's frankness is out of place in a judicial setting, where will be the courts of last resort?
Is the debate on disarmament to be confined to congressional committees, seminars of experts and the offices of defense analysts? Must every one be told that, if he has a grievance, he should write his congressman?
That these have become the normal outlets for protesting history's most massive weapons buildup may be why this militarization strikes so few as heinously abnormal.