Why Three Jailed Pacifists Took on the Empire and What We’ve Learned Because They Broke the Law
In February 2014, I wrote—portions reprinted here, with a few modifications—about three imprisoned religious pacifists in the defunct, much-lamented NYTimesExaminer.
“I am thinking about Sister Megan Rice, an 84-year-old nun and two army veterans, Michael Walli, 65, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 58, now behind prison bars for daring to protest America’s historic addiction to war and nuclear weapons. By doing so they revealed how poorly our nuclear-arms sites are protected, theoretically offering an invitation to anyone who might wish to do a 9/11 repeat, but this time with nukes. Sister Megan received a 35 month sentence and the two men 62 months each.
What, exactly, was their crime? They cut a hole into a barbed wire fence, hammering on the Highly Enriched Uranium Material Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee’s ultra-secret national security nuclear site and then crossed over into prohibited ground, spray painting some ‘Biblical graffiti’ bearing Isaiah’s subversive aphorism about “beating swords into plowshares.
No privately employed guards stopped them. No one shouted, “Halt, who goes there?” The three just walked in and awaited the arrival of guards, showing that anyone could do the same.
With the exception of a few leftist social media, our print and TV media couldn’t be bothered. Neil Postman’s deservedly famous phrase describing contemporary Americans as “Amusing themselves to death” was a perfect portrayal. Postman added another taunt. “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual sound of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a real possibility.”
So why I am still obsessed with three obscure pacifists, now felons after a jury’s guilty decision in a federal court? For one thing, because Jim O’Grady and I wrote “Disarmed and Dangerous” (Basic Books), a biography of Dan and Phil Berrigan, and we came to know (though not Sister Megan and the two veterans) many essentially uncelebrated pacifist and religious dissidents.
But more so I’m drawn to them now because of Eric Schlosser’s very long and brilliant essay “Break-In at Y-12” in The New Yorker of March 9, 2015. Both mesmerizing and extraordinary, it is replete with original reporting about these three nonviolent resisters in the context of our militaristic culture.
Sister Megan, Walli, and Boertje-Obed had many inspirational figures in their lives, such as Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
Sister Megan, Walli, and Boertje-Obed had many inspirational figures in their lives, such as Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Once viewed as a traitor for opposing all wars and conscription, later widely admired and respected for her service to the poor and homeless for decades a dedicated Catholic, she is currently under consideration for sainthood, endorsed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the conservative Archbishop of New York.
Michael Walli is a Vietnam veteran of two tours—Phil Berrigan was also a veteran but of WWII. Schlosser tells us Walli contacted PTSD and “a spiritual crisis” in combat, turning him into a “warrior for peace,” a la Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers. Motivated by St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dorothy Day, who he considered God’s gift, he’s lived in voluntary poverty while helping the most vulnerable among us, living as Jesus had among “the rejected ones, the scorned ones,” as the writer Robert Coles once said of Dorothy Day.
Sister Megan grew up in Manhattan and her parents were close friends of Dorothy Day even before the founding of the Catholic Worker. At 18, she joined the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, and in 1962 went to work in Nigeria and subsequently spent almost thirty years in Africa. Schlosser mentions that her uncle “had spent time in Nagasaki not long after its destruction by an atomic bomb and his stories of the aftermath greatly disturbed her.” When she returned to the U.S. in the eighties to care for her aging mother, she joined others protesting at the Nevada Test Site. “She even persuaded her eighty-four-year-old mother to get arrested there.”
Greg Boertje-Obed had also served in the Army as a First Lieutenant and he and his wife Michelle Naar-Obed, the parents of a daughter, had both participated in Plowshare actions while occasionally living in Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister’s Jonah House—they too had kids, three of them—in a poor Baltimore neighborhood. When Boertje-Obed wasn’t protesting or helping to plan an action, he and Phil painted houses for a living.
In 1980 Phil started his quixotic Plowshares movement with a raid on General Electric’s Reentry Division assembly facility in King of Prussia, near Philadelphia. He, Dan and a small group, used a hammer to disarm some partially assembled warheads, ended up smashing two of them, and then spilt blood—a reprise of Vietnam era’s draft board raids—on blueprints, work orders and some equipment. They then knelt, prayed, and patiently waited for forty-five minutes for the police to arrive.
Schlosser mentions another Plowshares action in January 2010 (“the worst nuclear-security lapse in the history of the U.S. Navy,”) which resembled Y-12. Carried out by two priests and a nun, 83-year-old Sister Anne Montgomery who would also take part in the later GE raid. (Her father, she once told me, had been a U.S. Admiral in WWII and her brother a pilot who died in an air crash). These other Plowshare activists had slipped easily into the Strategic Weapons Facility Pacific in Kitsap Naval Base, in Washington State, “a storage area containing hundreds of nuclear warheads for Trident missiles.” They were punished, but leniently, so chaotic and unpredictable had been the earlier response to Plowshare break-ins.
Schlosser also raises the issue of how little some foreign countries do to protect their nuclear materials. “At least twenty-five countries now possess two pounds or more of weapons-grade fissile material, and some nuclear sites overseas don’t even have armed guards.” In the U.S., as Y-12 revealed, security guards may not always help. “Managers,” he cautions, “too often become complacent about long-time employees and don’t consider the possibility that someone may be blackmailed, or coerced into helping terrorists.” And he quotes an anonymous security specialist who offers an ominous caveat: “Any vulnerability assessment which finds no vulnerabilities or only a few is worthless and wrong.”
When a congressional hearing about the failure of security in Y-12 was held in September 2012, Sister Megan and Michael Walli were present but not asked to speak. Still, conservative Republican Rep. Joe Burton of Texas asked Sister Megan to stand and then said, “We want to thank you for pointing out some of the problems in our security.” Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democratic liberal added, “Thank you for your actions. Thank you for your willingness to focus attention on this nuclear weapons buildup. We thank you for your courage….You should be praised because that is ultimately what the Sermon on the Mount is all about.” Phil Berrigan and his allies would have said the same thing.
But while Presiding Judge Amul R. Thapar said he regretted putting “good people behind bars,” he also rebuked them. “If all that energy and passion was devoted to changing the laws, perhaps real change would have occurred by today.” A prosecutor added that because Soviet Russia and the U.S. possessed huge nuclear arsenals the two never fought a hot war during the Cold War. It’s called nuclear deterrence and most Americans would probably agree it’s done the job, at least so far. All that is, except Plowshare resisters and the sympathizers.
I ended my original article with longtime peace worker Kathy Boylan‘s testimony on their behalf. “Michael,” she told the court, referring to Walli, “is trying to save lives. Your life.” Turning toward the prosecutor, she added, “Your life. All our lives.”
Schlosser went further. At the end of his article, after visiting Boertje-Obed, he is outside Leavenworth Penitentiary. “The walls of the penitentiary guarding the pacifist,” he finally concludes, “were taller and more impenetrable than any of the fences at Y-12.”