Daniel Berrigan and a Pennsylvania Judge

University Essays: Lesson 10, Reading 3

By Colman McCarthy

A bracing mix of judicial candor and integrity was displayed recently in a Pennsylvania county courtroom. Senior Judge James Buckingham had before the bench eight defendants who were convicted in 1981 of burglary, criminal mischief and criminal conspiracy. A dastardly crew, all. Nine years ago, the sentencing judge threw the book at them, a heavy tome that included three-to-ten-year prison stretches.

On appeal in 1984, the conviction was reversed. Prosecutors then appealed the reversal, with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling favorably for the state. The case was returned to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, with a resentencing ordered in Montgomery County, Pa. The criminals were the Plowshares Eight, a group of incorrigible peacemakers who, hammers in hands and resistance to war preparation in their hearts, damaged two nuclear missile nose cones, poured blood on documents and prayed for peace. They had slipped into the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pa., a bomb- making facility that had helped the nation’s sixth largest industrial corporation gross an estimated $11 billion in nuclear warfare systems in 1984-1986. GE has plugged itself into the major instruments of death in the U.S. arsenal: the Trident, MX, Minute-man, Poseidon, Aegis and Tomahawk cruise missiles; the Stealth and B-l bombers; fighter planes; and Star Wars. In the Washington palm-greasing game, GE is a bright bulb of fluorescent generosity with PAC money and honoraria to its congressional soulmates.

In passing new sentences on the Plowshares Eight, whose members included  the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, Philip Berrigan and Sister Anne Montgomery of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, Judge Buckingham declined to throw even a page, much less the previously sanctioned book, at them. They were dismissed on the time they had served awaiting trail in 1980-1981, amounts from 5 days to 17 months.

Buckingham said the crimes were minor and not violent: “The defendants were attempting to make statements. I agree with many of the statements…The nuclear industry is a frightening subject.” The judge has an incorrigibility of his own, an open mind. He broke ranks from most judges in antiwar civil disobedience cases by allowing the eight to speak in court both of their motivations and their vehemence against the American military machine. Not a one of the eight was burdened by reticence, despite the memory of the original sentencing judge in 1981 who treated the defendants as self-anointed, Christ-hounded doomsayers who broke the law and now needed to have the law break them, and without a peep from the docket. That judge was criticized by the Superior Court for his “acrimonious series of confrontations.”

Before a calmer judge this time, each of the eight restated what Thoreau, Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other miscreants had told their courts after guilty verdicts were delivered: Conscience comes before the state; no one is excused from defying unjust laws. The 1980 statement of the group, issued when entering the bomb factory, still held: “In confronting General Electric, we choose to obey God’s law of life, rather than a corporate summons to death. Our beating of swords into plowshares is a way to enflesh this biblical call. In our action, we draw on a deep-rooted faith in Christ, who changed the course of history through his willingness to suffer rather than to kill. We are filled with hope for our world and for our children as we join in this act of resistance.” After listening to the Plowshares Eight, Buckingham acknowledged that when
he “came down here today my ideas were a little different.” The judge praised the defense attorney, Ramsay Clark, a former U.S. attorney general who described the eight as “a gentle, principled, loving and devoted people who have made a stunning difference in the lives of all who know them and, beyond that, in the lives of millions.”

Most judges, products first of law schools that require no courses on civil disobedience and then years of not questioning a government that bankrolls the legal slaughter
that results from weapons making, disdain such dissidents as the Plowshares Eight. “Who are you to be above the law?” is the rote query. If the question were fairly phrased, it would ask, “Who are you to be above the law that sanctions human annihilation?” Then the answer is rational: “I’m a citizen with a conscience that values life over state-ordered killing.”

As surely as the General Electrics keep the assembly lines of death in high gear, protesters keep coming. The Nuclear Resister Newsletter, a Tuscon publication, reports that 37,000 citizens were arrested in the United States and Canada in the 1980s for antinuclear disobedience. These citizens are to be honored, their defiance celebrated. They protest legal violence, always the last temple to be stormed because the idolatry of law is America’s civil religion. General Electric, godlike, says, “We bring good things to life.” Defy the sham of that dictum and some judge may give you life, or three-to-ten years.

This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372

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