Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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I grew up attending antiwar demonstrations with my father, a Presbyterian minister and outspoken activist who often protested outside a nuclear-weapons facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Although he’s been arrested numerous times for acts of civil disobedience, it wasn’t until July 2002 that he was sentenced to a prison term — six months for trespassing on federal property in an act of nonviolent resistance. When I heard the news, it made me proud that he had acted so boldly, and angry that our government locks people up for crossing a line and kneeling to pray.
It seemed like a good time to talk with someone whom I have long admired for his willingness to be imprisoned for nonviolent resistance: Catholic priest and disarmament activist Philip Berrigan. In the sixties, he and his older brother Daniel, a Jesuit priest, became celebrities of the antiwar movement. Although Daniel went on to become the more recognized of the two, writing prolifically and rarely shying away from the spotlight, Philip, in his own steady, passionate way, remained a man of action, planning and committing acts of civil disobedience right up until his death in December 2002.
I spoke with Philip Berrigan several months before he died. At that point, he had resisted war and the U.S. nuclear buildup for more than forty years. He was a veteran of World War II, and his belief that nuclear weapons shouldn’t exist had made him a veteran of the penal system as well; all told, he spent eleven years in prison. He was the first Catholic priest in American history to be imprisoned for a political crime: burning draft files with homemade napalm. In the eighties and nineties, Berrigan poured his own blood on the Pentagon and hammered on cruise missiles. His steadfast insistence on the appropriateness of his tactics alienated some peace activists and inspired many others.
A major part of Berrigan’s legacy is the Plowshares disarmament movement, which takes its name from the second chapter of the biblical book of Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares. . . . Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Since Berrigan helped to found Plowshares in 1980, the movement has become international, spreading to the U.K., the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, and Australia.
In addition to protesting nuclear warheads, Plowshares has decried the use of shells containing depleted uranium, a byproduct of the uranium-enrichment process used to make nuclear fuel and weapons. Depleted-uranium shells, which release radioactive particles on impact, have been used in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia. Although the Defense Department claims that the uranium residue poses no significant health risk, the UN says that the “sale and use of such weapons are incompatible with international human rights and humanitarian law,” and Plowshares has called the military use of depleted uranium a form of nuclear warfare.
Referred to by a judge at one of his trials as “a moral giant” and “the conscience of a generation,” Berrigan authored several books, including Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary (Henry Holt & Company) and Fighting the Lamb’s War: Skirmishes with the American Empire (Common Courage Press). He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize six times.
Berrigan married activist nun Elizabeth McAlister in 1969, and the two were later excommunicated because of their union. They had three children, and together helped start Jonah House, an intentional community of nonviolent resisters and social activists in Baltimore, Maryland. When I met with Berrigan at Jonah House in August 2002, he was recovering from hip surgery. He remained seated when I arrived, but greeted me warmly. At seventy-nine, he had stark white hair and a disarming smile. Neither of us knew then that he had cancer, which would kill him just a few months later.
On his deathbed, his convictions were as strong as ever. He dictated these final thoughts to his wife: “I die with the conviction, held since 1968, . . . that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth. To mine for them, manufacture them, and deploy them is a curse against God, the human family, and the earth itself.”
Jonah House is located right next to a cemetery, tucked behind dilapidated row houses in a downtown-Baltimore neighborhood full of abandoned buildings and liquor stores. The Jonah House residents built their cedar-shingled home themselves, and the light-filled rooms and large vegetable garden made me feel as if I had stumbled upon an oasis. A police helicopter circling overhead brought me back to reality.
Elliott: Do you think the military has any legitimate role in modern society?
Berrigan: No. War is never justified. Christian resister Ben Salmon put it succinctly: “Either Jesus was a liar, or war is never necessary.” It was Leo Tolstoy’s view that any military is intended first for use against its own people. I agree. If we were sane and just, we’d dismantle our military today.
Elliott: How did the Plowshares movement begin?
Berrigan: In the late seventies, disarmament activists began singling out General Electric in their protests, because GE was — and is — a big weapons manufacturer. GE was making missile nose cones — re-entry vehicles for the Minuteman III missiles — at a plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. One of our number walked into the front vestibule of the plant, located an in-house telephone book, and ripped out a page that had a rough floor plan of the plant. Then we walked around the perimeter of the plant and saw these huge tractor-trailers backed up to a ramp. We figured that the nose cones would be moving to that shipping point.
On September 9, 1980, eight of us went into the back of the plant, where the workers entered, to try to locate the missile nose cones. Our contingency plan, if we were stopped, was to drop to our knees, pour some blood, and say some prayers. But God was with us. It took us about ten seconds to locate the nose cones. And we began to belabor them and pour our blood on classified blueprints. We damaged a lot of the handmade tools they used in testing those things. That was our first Plowshares action.
Faith is a major component of Plowshares: You have to believe that hellish weapons are not the will of God. You have to believe that, with God’s help, you can get to these weapons. And, finally, you have to believe that you can do both symbolic and real damage to them. “Hellish weapons” means battleships that deploy Tomahawk cruise missiles; it means Aegis destroyers, B-52 bombers, and B-1 bombers; it means the whole array of nuclear first-strike weapons.
The most recent action I did was in East Baltimore. We disarmed A-10 Warthog warplanes. They are nuclear weapons because they fire depleted-uranium shells. At last count, I heard that a thousand American GIs from Desert Storm have already died from depleted-uranium poisoning. And such deaths are enormously painful and protracted. Their immune systems shut down. Like AIDS victims, they become pushovers for any disease that comes along. That’s what these GIs have gone through, and that’s what the Pentagon suppresses.
Elliott: Isn’t the use of depleted uranium considered a war crime by international law?
Berrigan: Yes, but we were not permitted to argue that in court. Ramsey Clark, a former attorney general of the United States and a dear friend, defended us in several trials. He’s an expert on international law, which, according to the U.S. Constitution, supersedes federal law. But anytime we tried to use that in our defense, the prosecutor would shout, “Objection! Objection!” and the judge would defer to him.
© Sara Safransky
Elliott: You were also not allowed to use the “necessity defense” in the Plowshares trials. Could you explain the necessity defense?
Berrigan: The simplest example of necessity is breaking down a door to save a child from a burning building. You aren’t charged with breaking and entering. You are commended for having saved a life.
We’ve never been able to use the necessity defense because the government has argued that we cannot prove nuclear war is imminent. We explain that nuclear war could happen at any time as long as the government is designing, building, and deploying nuclear weapons; that the government has poisoned our air, water, and food supply with radioactive isotopes; and that atomic testing has already killed millions of people worldwide.
Elliott: In the documentary film In the King of Prussia, depicting the trial of the Plowshares Eight, one of the jury members admits that he didn’t know the GE plant in his town was making parts for nuclear missiles. How aware do you think most Americans are that our country is still building nuclear weapons?
Berrigan: It’s not so much the unawareness of the American people that’s the problem. Even when we are aware that the weapons are being built, we don’t understand what this is doing to us. You’re looking at fifty-eight years of nuclearism. You’re looking at more than a thousand atmospheric or underground nuclear tests. You’re looking at 103 nuclear power plants in this country, all of which are emitting radiation. You’re looking at 149 nuclear-weapons factories in the U.S., 104 of which the Department of Energy says are so toxic we can’t clean them up. Plus, we have fought four nuclear wars: in Japan, Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan — the last one perhaps the worst of all.
Trying to root out Al-Qaeda fighters in the Hindu Kush mountain range in Afghanistan, we used huge rock-penetrating bombs made of depleted uranium. And we left a fierce residue of depleted uranium in that mountain range, which, when the snow melts, waters most of the agricultural land in neighboring Pakistan. So we have the same situation there that we have in southern Iraq: a saturation of air, soil, water, and vegetation with nuclear material.
Elliott: Are nuclear weapons the biggest threat we face today?
Berrigan: Yes. The near showdown between India and Pakistan over Kashmir should highlight that. Furthermore, all those tests, wars, nuclear power plants, and uranium mines have so saturated the planet with radioactive rubbish that we have a global cancer epidemic on our hands. We are all carrying questionable material in our bodies, and it is going to kill some of us. You can’t escape it. And you never know you’ve contracted cancer until it starts to kill you.
The vast percentage of people are in denial about this. A friend of ours, Carole Gallagher, wrote a notable book on the Nevada Test Site, titled American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War. One interview she did sticks out in my memory: She walked into the room of a dying man who had been a worker at the Nevada Test Site. At the end of every workday, he had gone to a trough of radioactive water and washed his face.
When Carole went into his sickroom, this once two-hundred-pound man was down to ninety-five pounds. She asked him if his illness was related to his work at the Nevada Test Site, and from his deathbed, the old guy began to roar and curse at her. She left at the request of the man’s wife. But he carried his denial to the grave.
Elliott: Many of the actions you have participated in involved hammering on weapons of mass destruction and so forth. There is disagreement within the peace movement on the destruction of property as a tactic. What kind of criticism have you faced from within the movement and how do you justify this destruction?
Berrigan: We haven’t received much criticism in our immediate circles, but some people, including many Quakers, say that destruction of property is violent, that it’s vandalism. But for us it goes deeper than property issues: These weapons don’t have a right to exist. And at some point they’re going to have to be dismantled and returned to their original forms.
The twenty-fourth Psalm says: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” Look at the fabrication of a weapon. All these brilliant scientists and skilled technicians are taking things that don’t belong to them. They’re taking the materiality of this world and fabricating from it a lethal weapon to use against other human beings. They’re saying that, under certain circumstances, we will damn well use this weapon. And we have used it. We are the only country in the world that has used nuclear weapons on other human beings.
The making of such a weapon is a wholesale act of robbery. We have to restore this material, symbolically and in reality, to its original state. What we’re doing through Plowshares is converting property back to that which is proper to human life.
In 1996, six of us climbed aboard a new Aegis destroyer at the Bath Iron Works in Maine and worked our way to the navigational center of the ship. We used hammers to dismantle the sophisticated navigational panel that runs the length of the pilot house and poured our blood over everything. Our actions said: This weapon doesn’t have any right to exist. So we are disarming it — symbolically and in reality.
Elliott: I was interested to learn that you served in the U.S. military during World War II.
Berrigan: I didn’t have a clue in those days. I was really a dim bulb. When I came home from the service, my Jesuit brother Daniel was studying theology at a seminary outside Baltimore, and I went directly to see him. The atomic bomb had just been dropped, and they had a victory parade, of all things, there at the seminary, because the Jesuits didn’t know any more than I did. Since I was the only officer there, I led the parade, carrying an American flag. It was a very bad moment, a confession of my total ignorance.
I believed President Truman when he said that we’d saved millions of American lives by dropping those two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But it caught up with me, because I’d seen so much devastation and death in northern Europe — especially in Germany. Eventually, I had to put two and two together: if conventional bombing had done that, what had the atomic bomb done to Japan?
Elliott: What made you decide to leave the military and become a priest?
Berrigan: Well, at first I wanted to stay in the military, because it was a sure promotion to first lieutenant if I did, but my family prevailed on me to leave. They realized how rotten things were. (I had three brothers in the service at the time.) And when I was honest with myself, I knew they were right, because the military was rife with womanizing, heavy drinking, and people going through the motions to further their career.
So my family talked me into leaving the service. My brother Daniel started pulling strings to get me into a prestigious Jesuit college called Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. They barely accepted me. My marks from high school were poor to indifferent — I hadn’t had any interest in the junk they were teaching. But I went to Holy Cross for four years. I thought of it this way: Two of my brothers were seminarians at that point, and they were both doing good things and were decent and moral people. I was wasting my life because I was still doing a lot of drinking. So I said I’d give it a try. And I made it through and graduated into a Jesuit order that served American blacks, mostly in the deep South.
Elliott: The Catholic Church has consistently discouraged clergy from taking a stand against war. How has this affected your view of the Church?
Berrigan: I try to understand what I call the Church’s institutional priorities, which are mainly survival and a good relationship with the government, because the Church is trying to avoid taxes. If the Catholic Church ever had to pay property taxes, much of it would just collapse. The Church has tens, maybe hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of property in the U.S., including its college and university system, parish real estate, and so on. So the Church maintains a relationship with Caesar. They are in and out of bed with Caesar all the time. Major Church leaders’ shameful support for the war in Afghanistan is an indication of that.
The Episcopalians, too, are well tamed, perhaps even more so than most Roman Catholics. For example, after September 11, the Episcopal Church had a big hoedown at the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. They went through a facsimile of a worship service and then declared their allegiance to the government. Afterward some church leaders tailed George W. Bush over to the White House at his invitation.
Some Plowshares people went into the cathedral during the service. They really weren’t that disruptive, but some of them were dragged out. They were trying to address the fact that this cathedral was the site of a new declaration of allegiance to a criminal government.
In my own experience, I spoke out against the Vietnam War and was silenced three times by my superior general, who was simplistic and ignorant, but a good man. He said to me, “This is not our work, so stop talking about that war.” Nothing I could say could prevail against his institutional logic. Finally, my conscience couldn’t tolerate it any longer, and when I was moved to a Baltimore parish, I broke out.
Elliott: Yet you still consider yourself to be part of the Church. Why?
Berrigan: My roots are there, and they go back generation after generation. My parents and grandparents were devout, unquestioning Roman Catholics. Furthermore, if I look at my checkered career and analyze it — the pluses and minuses — I find that the Church has given me a hell of a lot more than I’ve given the Church. It’s given me the Sacrament; it’s given me the Scripture; it’s given me vital long-term friendships; it’s given me community. The list goes on and on.
I was excommunicated in 1973 when my wife, Elizabeth McAlister, and I went public with our marriage. But the Church hasn’t suspended me, ever. And nothing has changed for me. I’m still doing the work I did before I was excommunicated. I’m still trying to say something decent and rational about nonviolence and about loving one’s neighbor. I look upon myself as a married Catholic priest.
We had doctor friends take three or four pints of our blood, and we went to the Pentagon and poured it at the top of the steps, thinking, They’ll listen if they have to track blood into the Pentagon. They had to walk right through our blood to get into the building. And it didn’t make the slightest difference.
Elliott: How did you arrive at the decision to commit your first act of civil disobedience?
Berrigan: The first ones were in 1965 and 1966 at Fort Myers, Virginia, which is a military post where all the Joint Chiefs of Staff live. My brother Daniel and I used to write letters to the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and request a word with him about the Vietnam War. Of course, he wouldn’t condescend even to sniff at us, let alone give us an interview. So we went on the base and demonstrated at his house. The MPs threw us out. Then we escalated the conflict a little. I didn’t know much about civil disobedience in those days. It got a bit sticky. We drove right through a manned checkpoint on the base and raced to the flagpole and knelt down and prayed for an end to the war. They arrested us, but didn’t prosecute.
The thing that motivated me most was burying black soldiers at my Josephite parish, putting those tin boxes in the ground that were coming back from Vietnam. I tried to do my homework. I did a lot of reading. I talked to many thoughtful people who were against the war. It was not so much a case of faith with me, or a case of justice. It was a case of outrage. I was royally pissed off.
As the Vietnam War grew more intense, we began to do some organizing here in Baltimore. We got together a group called Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. We went through the whole routine of talking to congresspeople in Washington, lobbying, meeting with State Department officials, holding street demonstrations and legal marches. But all of that was just window dressing. Finally, we realized that we were going to have to do some serious civil disobedience.
Meanwhile, I’d been called out to Chicago by an old friend of mine, an ex–labor leader by the name of Sidney Lens. He was a fine researcher and writer and had written several books on the nuclear arms race. He called together some young people from Students for a Democratic Society, and I met with them to talk about disrupting the Selective Service. Their idea was to chain the wheels of the buses that took young men to be inducted into the army. They had done this already, and they said that when they sabotaged a bus, the young recruits would get off and talk with them, and many of them agreed not to get back on the bus.
When I returned to Baltimore, I thought to myself, What would happen if we destroyed draft files? We scoped out the Customs House, where they had brought eighteen local draft boards together under one roof, and we consulted a lawyer, who said, “Don’t go in there at night, because they will throw the book at you.” That made sense to us; we didn’t want to face fifteen to twenty years in prison. So we went in in broad daylight and poured blood on the draft files.
I no longer act because I want to remake this country. . . . I do things because they’re right, and because they’re the best version of the truth I can fathom, and because they’re better than what’s being done by the government and the Pentagon, by our whole killing machine.
Elliott: Why do you use blood in so many direct actions?
Berrigan: Because war is an outright bloody business, and Americans are not attuned to that. War is foreign to us here in this country. The Pentagon lies consistently about American casualties. There have probably been several hundred recently in Afghanistan. They say forty-one. We Americans don’t like to see our own blood or be reminded that war is a bloody business.
We used blood in a demonstration at the Pentagon. We had doctor friends take three or four pints of our blood, and we went to the Pentagon and poured it at the top of the steps, thinking, They’ll listen if they have to track blood into the Pentagon. They had to walk right through our blood to get into the building. And it didn’t make the slightest difference. Pentagon workers — both civilian and military personnel — trooped into that building like slaves. They kept their eyes on the ground. We would try to give them leaflets, and they’d slap them away. Many of them cursed us. But they trooped in like slaves. That’s the only metaphor that does them justice.
In the first book of Samuel, the Jewish elders come to the prophet Samuel and ask for a king. And Samuel says to God, They want a king. And God says, Give them a king and don’t feel bad about it, Samuel. They’re rejecting me rather than you. So don’t get put out about it. But go ahead and tell these elders what a king is going to cost them: their sons are going to be drafted into the military; they’re going to be taxed right out of their pants; and so on.
And the culminating phrase is: “And they’ll be the king’s slaves.” The message is clear: you want a human leader, a leader other than God, then you’ll be a slave.
I believe that the American people are the most enslaved in the world, because we’ve made an idol of materialism. We’ve been living high on the hog, but when it comes to peace and justice, we are nowhere. We’re like kindergarten children, only worse: at least children are open.
© Kerry St. Ours
Elliott: You’ve said that you break only laws that are “unjust.” What makes a law unjust?
Berrigan: Justice rests on treating others as you would want to be treated. When a law doesn’t meet these criteria, when it favors one person against the other, it becomes unjust. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to say that you have to break unjust laws, because they aren’t real laws. In fact, an unjust law is no law at all. Therefore, one does something truthful by breaking it.
Look at the life of Jesus. He went through his whole public ministry breaking laws because they were crushing the people and because they weren’t real laws. Every time he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath and healed people or cleansed the Temple, he was breaking the law. The story of Jesus’ public ministry is suppressed by the established Church, so much so that the historical figure of Jesus never emerges. It’s pitiful.
I no longer act because I want to remake this country. I no longer have the aim of humanizing this wretched society — which Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement used to call “a filthy, rotten system.” I do things because they’re right, and because they’re the best version of the truth I can fathom, and because they’re better than what’s being done by the government and the Pentagon, by our whole killing machine.
Elliott: You’ve spent eleven years in prison. What would you say to people who view that as wasted time?
Berrigan: That it is exactly the opposite. Many people can’t help but admire that you’ve given up your liberty. You’re not taking a paycheck, and you’re not getting any gold watches. Prison guards have told me, “At least you’ve got the strength of your convictions. At least you believe in something and are willing to stand up for it.” That’s a grudging allowance, and yet it’s proof that people do recognize the sacrifice. No one likes prison, but those of us who have given up our freedom willingly transcend that pit of misery. We grin and bear it. We help humanize it. So going to prison wins people’s hearts and minds and spirits.
The young men who refused to serve in Vietnam and went to prison helped to change the hearts and minds of their friends and neighbors back home. I was in prison with many of them. I saw the support they got. Most of the time, their parents were against them. Yet even their parents were forced to ask, “Why is the government jailing my son?” Thousands of these kids were in federal prison. They each had a constituency at home: they had a church or synagogue; they had a campus; they had a family. They gained notoriety because they had taken a stand and had been given three years. They were known statewide. Many people’s minds were slowly changed by these young fellows.
During the labor movement, the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies, said flat out, “We have to fill up the jails,” and they proceeded to do it. They would go into a mining town in Colorado, or Idaho, or Wyoming, where some of their buddies were in jail, and they’d immediately break curfew or get drunk en masse, and they’d fill up the jails. The community would be unable to feed all these prisoners, and so it would have to open the jail doors. It was one of the finest chapters in the U.S. labor movement’s history.
Dorothy Day, who was jailed many times, said, “If we fill up the jails, maybe we can free some of the poor who are in there. Because there certainly isn’t going to be room for all of us.”
Elliott: You and your wife, Elizabeth, spent time in prison when your children were young. How do you reconcile your need to protest with your responsibility to them?
Berrigan: Liz and I were able to serve prison time because we had a supportive community. Once, we were both jailed for a mass action in which we poured blood on all sixteen pillars of one side of the Pentagon. It was an extremely truthful moment, because it’s a house of blood. The only reason for its existence is to find more expedient ways of killing people.
Liz got six months, and I got ninety days. Our children were one and two years old at the time. But we had trusted friends at home caring for them. After that, when we were both out of jail, we vowed that we would take turns so that one of us could always be with the children.
We advise people to build a community. And it doesn’t have to be under the same roof, as at Jonah House, but just some true friends who’ll help out. Through our resistance, our children learned to deconstruct myths and counter the lies of our culture.
Once, when my brother Daniel was giving a talk, a young married man with children got up and said, “I can’t afford to go to jail. What do you recommend?” And Daniel shot back at him, “Think about it for a moment. You can’t afford not to go to jail, because the outcome of your not going, of your not standing up, is going to be worse.”
Elliott: You have chosen to live in an intentional community of activists. What has been the most challenging thing about this?
Berrigan: Well, the resistance part is tough, because you’ve always got friends locked up in jail or people planning some complex action. But the really tough part is the human relations. You’ve got to respect the people who are with you so deeply that their faults don’t drive you away. Because we all have our idiosyncrasies and our weaknesses. We’re all broken people. Without the grace of God, though, we’d be a hell of a lot worse.
It’s particularly hard to live in an intentional community in the U.S., because our culture is anticommunitarian. It’s all about buying and selling. My daughter is a researcher with the World Policy Institute in New York City, and she admits that when she goes down to lunch on Fifth Avenue, she has to leave her credit card at home in Brooklyn or she will be seduced into buying things she doesn’t need. On the one hand, she’s confessing a weakness, but on the other, she’s saying that everybody is under enormous pressure to buy.
Elliott: How has the media coverage of Plowshares actions changed over time? I know that you and your brother Daniel were once on the cover of Time.
Berrigan: Yes, but you have to put that in context. The media in this country are corporate, and that means any media outlet is tied to many other corporations. Their interests dovetail. Consequently, the media have learned to tailor the news to protect the corporations and the government. As Noam Chomsky would say, they “manufacture consent.”
Plowshares actions rarely get more than local coverage. And this has been true right across the board. In Western Europe, it’s different. There’s not the same degree of corporatism. Europeans are a little more sane than we are.
Elliott: What would you say to critics of the Plowshares movement who claim that your actions have not produced tangible results?
Berrigan: Americans want to see results because we’re pragmatists. God doesn’t require results. God requires faithfulness. You try to do an act of social justice, and do it lovingly. You don’t threaten anybody or hurt any military personnel during these actions. And you take the heat. You stand by and wait for arrest.
At many of these Plowshares actions, we could have escaped. We went aboard the USS Gettysburg, a huge missile cruiser up at the Bath Iron Works, and we did symbolic disarmament on the Tomahawk-missile hatches there. We pounded the hell out of them. And nobody came. It was Easter Sunday morning, and there were no guards on that multi-billion-dollar boat. We had to call security ourselves.
Elliott: I’m surprised you were able to gain access to so many expensive and deadly weapons.
Berrigan: In God’s world, you can’t protect such hellish instruments, because they are so counter to nature. There have been almost eighty such actions around the world since 1980 — our friends in the U.K. and Scotland are still doing actions against British Trident submarines — and time and again we’ve been able to go where we needed to go.
Elliott: Under the PATRIOT Act that President Bush signed into law in October 2001, civil disobedience could potentially be considered “domestic terrorism.”
Berrigan: The movement was traumatized by September 11. For a long time, there wasn’t any civil disobedience. Now people are overcoming their fear and pushing ahead. A couple of our Catholic Worker friends climbed on a B-52 bomber at Langley Air Force Base and draped the fuselage with a big banner saying, This is a weapon of mass destruction. And now they’re facing prosecution.
Bush and Ashcroft are defending a big lie. They lie all the time. I don’t say that to denigrate them. It’s just the nature of things. Ashcroft is trying to keep the American people paranoid, as we were back in the early 1950s with McCarthyism and the hysteria over Communists, which was utterly without cause. There wasn’t a major Communist figure in this country who was advocating the overthrow of the American government. Not one. Most of them were just bright people who stood for social justice.
Elliott: You were in jail on September 11, 2001, and I understand that you were put into solitary confinement. Why?
Berrigan: Yes, I was put into solitary right away. Ten minutes after the second tower went down, the guards came for me. It was a matter of security in their minds. The whole penal system responded this way: anybody in prison who was the slightest bit suspect was rounded up and thrown into solitary. I didn’t care about myself. I’ve done months in solitary. Solitary doesn’t hold any fears for me. I welcome the silence, the time to pray and read the Bible. But I was worried they would start rounding up people at home, including right here at Jonah House. They’ve got the camps ready for anyone they suspect is sympathetic to terrorist causes. And if John Ashcroft has a blank check to lock people up, he’s probably going to use it.
Elliott: You and your brother Daniel were once at the top of the FBI’s most-wanted list.
Berrigan: Yes, I think it was mostly because Daniel pulled the FBI’s chain. To start with, he and I decided not to show up for prison. We were supposed to report to the U.S. federal marshals on a certain date in early 1970, but we refused, simply to protest the injustice of the whole thing. Daniel was teaching up at Cornell University, and he went underground there. I hid out in New Jersey.
Daniel was very close to the Students for a Democratic Society, however, so when they asked him to come speak at a big rally, he agreed, even though he knew the place was going to be alive with FBI agents. He got up at the rally and said his two cents’ worth, fully expecting to be arrested. Then the Bread and Puppet Theater went on. They had these giant puppets onstage, and one of them nudged Daniel and said, “Hey, you want to split?” [Laughter.] So he escaped underneath one of the enormous puppets. They loaded the puppets into a van and took him to a safe place.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was in a frenzy over that. And the manhunt began. Daniel was a constant thorn in their side: giving interviews with the mainstream media, meeting with the Black Panthers, preaching at Christian churches. And after each public appearance, he was spirited away. He had a network of decent people who’d hide him and feed him and move him on to the next station. Daniel reasoned that the FBI doesn’t know anything about nonviolence as a way of life. They are trained to apprehend violent criminals, and if you’re not one, they can’t catch you. You can stay underground indefinitely. Meanwhile, they caught me almost immediately, because I didn’t know these things. [Laughter.]
Americans want to see results because we’re pragmatists. God doesn’t require results. God requires faithfulness. You try to do an act of social justice, and do it lovingly. You don’t threaten anybody or hurt any military personnel during these actions. And you take the heat. You stand by and wait for arrest.
Elliott: How do you show love toward people who don’t share your convictions?
Berrigan: The Gospel requires us to love our enemies. I don’t know how good a job I do at this, but I pray for all the killers in this society every night before I sleep.
We are a nation of killers. Thomas Merton used to write about the official killers in American society: the White House, the Pentagon, the Department of Energy (92 percent of whose work is for the Pentagon), even the Supreme Court, which sanctioned the theft of the 2000 presidential election. And then there are the war-making corporations and the old veterans’ groups. You mention anything about peace, and the veterans will climb right down your throat. They’ll vilify you. I was on a call-in talk show in Connecticut, and these old veterans would call in and say, “You traitor son of a bitch. If I could come down there, I’d pull your nuts off.”
We’ve got to love all these guys and wish them well because God loves them. But it’s hard to do sometimes.
Elliott: You’ve said that you do not believe the institutions of this country, including its churches, can provide real change. How do you see real change happening?
Berrigan: Well, I began to work out this sketchy plan in prison. I asked myself: Does this material beast have any weaknesses? How do you get a handle on it? How do you curb it? How do you slow it down? After reading about the Russian strike of 1905, and Solidarity in Poland, and Gandhi’s work in India — all of which involved a general strike — I decided that was the way to go. The beast’s only vulnerable point is the economy. You’ve got to convince the American people of the injustice of consuming eight times more than our share of what the world produces. This country is like a huge mouth that’s being stuffed all the time. A strike would address that, but it would need to be buttressed by all sorts of direct action. As soon as I recover from surgery, I’ll go out and start shooting my mouth off.
Rachel J. Elliott
Philip Berrigan’s courage to act on his pacifist beliefs in the face of grave consequences inspires me and fills me with awe. In her interview with him, [“Acts of Faith,” July 2003] Rachel Elliott asks, “How do you show love toward people who don’t share your convictions?” Berrigan answers that, although the Gospel requires love, he doesn’t really know how to express it.
Marshall Rosenberg (who was interviewed in the February 2003 issue of The Sun), has developed a process called Nonviolent Communication, which allows us to understand our enemies, if not love them. The first step is to stop labeling them. Words like killers, pigs, and racists only dehumanize people. Replace these labels with words that describe exactly what these people are doing that infuriates you. Next, ask yourself what needs they are trying to meet by their actions. For example, George W. Bush may honestly want to protect Americans. Safety is also a need of mine, but I strongly disagree with his national-security policy.
It is excruciatingly hard for me to understand a president whose actions constantly violate my ideals, but what’s the point of working for peace if one doesn’t try to bring peace into one’s own life? How else can we take steps toward loving our neighbors, much less enemies? And if I don’t try to understand George W. Bush, how can I expect him to understand me?