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Matthew Clark — March 1984

The choice: Non-violence or extinction

Phillip Berrigan came to Toronto in mid-February hoping to testify as an expert witness at the trials of demonstrators arrested in last November’s actions at Litton Industries in Rexdale. – He had been allowed to testify as an expert witness in trials which took place in April of 1982. However, this time, he was allowed to take the stand only as a character witness. He was consequently unable to .present testimony concerning the danger of nuclear war and the illegality of war preparations.

Before his appearance at the trial, I had the opportunity to talk with Berrigan at the Cruise Missile Conversion Project office in Toronto, along with Tom Joyce, Paula Rochman, and Martha Walden. Berrigan has become well-known as a participant in a particular sort of non-violent civil disobedience action, in which certain kinds of government property are destroyed. In the late 1960’s Berrigan and others broke into a number of U.S. draft board offices, removed and destroyed files, and then waited to be arrested. These actions, and the trials that resulted from them, became famous in the anti-war movement.

Since the end of the war in Vietnam, Berrigan arid his colleagues have shifted their attention to nuclear weapons, but their action technique remains essentially the same: a small number of people enter a storage area or factory and damage nuclear weapons systems. The movie In the King of Prussia recreates .the trial following such an action.

Seven of these actions have taken place, under the name Plowshares (not to be confused with the Canadian organisation Project Ploughshares). We asked Berrigan to describe the most recent action,’ which took place at Griffiss Air Force Base in upstate New York.

As he described it, people become involved in these actions through personal contact, and through connection with the Atlantic Life Community, a loose-knit network. of Christian leftist activists. Once a group has decided on a particular action, they begin extensive preparations. One action (which eventually had to be cancelled for technical reasons) was in preparation for twelve months. The Griffiss action took about four months to prepare.

Much of the process of preparation goes on at retreats, which may last three days at a time, where the participants iron out the details and also pray. One problem they must face, Berrigan said, is the possibility that force will be used against them. So far, no one has been injured in a Ploughshares action, but participants do put themselves in situations where injury or even death is possible. Berrigan mentioned an action in Europe in which a group of activists damaged a missile launcher while within sight of armed military personnel.

Everything about the Griffiss action went very smoothly. The group of seven activists (Berrigan was not among them, but his wife was) entered the base unobserved at 3:45 in the morning. They made their way to a hangar where they knew B-52Gs with pylons for cruise missiles were stored. When they entered the hangar, they found it completely illuminated, but asserted. They spray-painted the airplanes with the message that each could carry the destructive force .of 120 Hiroshimas. They poured blood on the planes, and ruined six aircraft engines which were also in the hangar. After working undisturbed for about half an hour, they went outside the hangar and stood with banners for an hour, but they were ignored. .

Finally, a patrol car stopped and told them that they had to leave the base. They believe that they could have simply walked away, but they told the officers to look inside the hangar, and were arrested. They were charged with sabotage,. conspiracy, and destruction of government property.

According to the original government estimates, the damage was in the millions of dollars, but later the official estimates were revised down to $70,000. Berrigan is more inclined to believe the first figure. The government does ‘not’ want it known, he said, that non-violent activists can cause such extensive damage. They can’t admit that security can be so easily breached. But in fact, Berrigan said, weapons cannot be defended from determined non-violent activists.

The Plowshares actions are based on the idea that some property – cruise missiles, for example – has no right to exist. Berrigan stressed that these actions occur in a controlled and thoughtful manner without an orgy of destruction. Tom Joyce mentioned that the ‘point of the actions is to dramatize the situation rather than to present a method for disarmament.

Tom Joyce asked Berrigan what he thought about the Litton actions and what he would say if he was allowed to testify. According to Berrigan, the Litton demonstrators have shown that the building of nuclear weapons is not only immoral but also illegal. The demonstrators are obeying a higher law, a law which is a vehicle for justice. The law as it functions today, said Berrigan, is corrupt and bankrupt, a matter for ridicule, but the actions at Litton restore meaning to the law.

The international aspect of the demonstrations is also important, Berrigan said. Only a tiny nucleus of people understand that the species is in danger. The social mechanism, what he called “the filthy rotten system,” is against them, so it is vital to make links and to give support from country to country.

Berrigan draws an historical analogy between today’s movement and the early anti-Vietnam War movement of the mid-Sixties. Both periods, he says, are times of slow and laborious building of the movement. He, thinks, how: ever, that we have learned some lessons – “a commitment to truth and to justice, which is to say non-violence,” the avoidance of sexism and of “ideological shouting matches.” The movement, he says, is “pretty determined not to make those same mistakes again.”

Berrigan speaks in an explicitly Biblical context, quoting the famous passage from Micah IV, 3: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” He seems to take this passage as a direct imperative, in quite a literal sense. The choice we face, he believes, is non-violence or extinction, but the non-violence he advocates is rigorous and demanding. “You don’t really explore non-violence unless your head is in the oven… we have to look death square in the face – death seems likely to overwhelm us and the planet. You bring forth life insofar as you face death.” This idea, Berrigan believes, is the essence of the Biblical passion.

Berrigan feels that too many people are “morally flabby.” He was critical of some of the Catholic hierarchy who are opposed to nuclear weapons but-who are unwilling to take personal risks. Their reasons, he said, amount mostly to excuses.

I found talking to Berrigan exhausting, at once exciting and upsetting. I felt that I was in the presence of a modern-day prophet. His conviction, sincerity and personal power are undeniable. I don’t entirely agree with his approach to civil disobedience – I see it as one of many legitimate tactics, rather than as a moral imperative in itself – but his uncompromising demand for action against global holocaust is a challenge worth facing.