War, Property & Peace

University Essays, Lesson 6, Reading 6

By Colman McCarthy

When John LaForge spoke to the jury in a Federal District Court about why he and a companion did $35,000 damage to a nuclear-weapons system in a Sperry warfare plant, he discussed choices. “We are not romantic idealists, naive of the real cat-eat-bird world,” he said. “In this world, Sperry prototypes are built to operate in a harsh radiation environment. The living beings of this world cannot. So we have spoken as loudly as possible, without harming anyone, to this dark time of planned human extinction. . . in which billions of dollars are spent to make nuclear war happen, and practically nothing is spent to keep it from happening.”

The jury rejected the argument. It found LaForge and his friend guilty of the destruction of federal property.

Convictions are common these days for the artisans of anti-war civil disobedience. Out of a dozen recent trials, more than 30 peace activists are now in prison or jail because they have entered weapons plants and disabled one bomb part or another. With clumsy determination, most judges, viewing the defendants as publicity seekers or outright loonies, hurry them through the courts and into jail as though national security is being undermined every minute they walk free.

This case in Minneapolis is different. Judge Miles Lord, aware that the militarism needs to be put away and not the citizens of cast-iron conscience who oppose it, gave the two defendants six-month suspended sentences. For once, a courtroom is presided over by a jurist who respects both the tradition of civil disobedience and the arguments made for it by peacemakers who have been damaging the weapons. Lord, best known for his judicial firmness against corporate criminals, gave LaForge a full forum for his views. Lord said, “I was very impressed with the plausibility of the argument of the defendants when they said that international law made it illegal to manufacture these atomic weapons that indiscriminately kill and wipe out whole civilian populations.”

Lord is not a romantic idealist either. He was not surprised by the jury’s verdict of guilty: “A good motive doesn’t count. The jury is required to follow the law.” However, in court last Thursday, Lord said, when setting the pair free, that he wanted “to take the sting out of the bomb and remove the halo over any device that can kill.” What most juries, as well as most people, find troublesome about the actions of war resisters in weapons plant is their destructiveness. How can they call themselves nonviolent peacemakers, it is asked, when they are unpeacefully doing violence to someone’s property?

A fair question, except how can anti-property property be respected? Nuclear weapons, stacked like firewood and ready to burn the final conflagration, are pieces of property that threaten the world, the common property of everyone. The war resisters who have smashed everything from warhead nose cones to Trident II missile tubes believe they are acting against anti-life property. They ask that if a gun is held to your head or the head of someone you love, don’t you have the right – or obligation – to dismantle, destroy, or get rid of the gun.

In the Sperry trial, it was reported that Judge Lord told the prosecutors to stop their repetitious talk of violent acts against Sperry. Stressing that this wasn’t an assault case. Lord was quoted in a Minnesota newspaper as saying that the acts were like a person “going into a National Forest and cutting down an expensive tree that didn’t fall on anyone.” La Forge spoke up (in another court he would likely have been silenced) to extend the analogy: The felled tree was diseased and threatened to destroy all the forests of the Earth.

Weapons that kill indiscriminately have been outlawed by such international agreements as the 1977 Geneva Protocol. The Nuremberg Principles talk of “crimes against peace,” namely, “planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of a war of aggression.” Nuremberg does not absolve a citizen from responsibility to stop such crimes, “provided a moral choice was in fact possible for him.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., when asked whether his civil disobedience was efficient or politically shrewd, answered that efficiency or shrewdness wasn’t the point. The issue is: Is it right or wrong?

If King is unpersuasive, there is the Buddhist tale of the spiritual master who went to the town square every day to cry out against war and injustice. Disciples, seeing that he was having no effect, said, “No one is listening, everyone’s insane. It’s time to stop.” “No,” said the master, “I will keep crying out so I won’t go insane.”

From: The Washington Post

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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