Four Words that Spoke Volumes


“Sentenced to time served,” were the welcome words pronounced by Senior Judge Stephen Milliken, of the District of Columbia’s Superior Court, on March 28.

 

Ed Kinane, from Syracuse, and I stood before Milliken, charged with disrupting a Congressional Committee hearing the evening of March 8 when Ed silently held up a banner that read, “Stop the Killing,” and I started reading the names of U.S. soldiers and Iraqis killed in the war. Capitol Police hustled us out and arrested us, but not before we interjected several moments of reality into the committee’s discussion of $67,000,000,000 more for the war.

 

In court we didn’t contest our charges, but we winced when prosecutors asked the judge to sentence Ed, previously arrested at a School of the Americas protest, to six months in jail, suspended except for three days’ probation, and an order barring him from the Capitol. With no federal record, prosecutors were content to ask for probation and a “stay away” order for me.

 

The judge listened as each of us read a statement we had prepared. Ed said he felt his protest was a form of petitioning Congress for redress of a war policy that grieved him deeply. He closed by looking at Milliken, and said, “May each of us do whatever we can to end this heinous war as soon as humanly possible.”

 

In my statement, I described images still fresh in my mind 35 years after working as a corpsman at a Navy hospital during Viet Nam: “Images of young soldiers and Marines lying in row upon row of hospital beds, shrouded in layers of white bandages. Images of picking shrapnel out of Mike Ramsack’s backside, of dressing Bob Butikofer’s wounds every day, trying not to make him scream, of changing colostomy bags on guys hoping they wouldn’t defecate out the hole in their guts caused by a gunshot wound. Images of the young soldier I couldn’t hook up properly for a brain scan because he was missing his entire left temporal lobe. Images of long lines of ambulatory patients waiting for supper in the hospital chow hall, sitting in wheelchairs, leaning on crutches, missing arms and legs and eyes. Images of a young man, silent and broken, sitting in a corner of the psychiatric ward.”

 

I told Judge Milliken, “There are other, more recent images from my trips to Iraq that I cannot forget. Images of the kids I met on the streets of Baghdad, and the ones in Abu Hishma who shared their chicken and rice dinner with an American journalist two days after a cruise missile blew their orange grove to bits…Images of the young U.S. Army sergeant from West Virginia I accompanied on patrol one night near Balad, who answered my question, ‘why are you in Iraq?’ with a tired shrug saying, ‘I really don’t know.’ And his partner, just as bone tired, who answered simply, ‘oil.’”

 

“I see these images every day,” I told the judge. “And I know that the young men in that Navy hospital 35 years ago, just like the ones I met last year in Iraq, are getting killed and maimed for a preposterous lie.”

 

As the Capitol Police dragged me out of the Appropriations Committee hearing room on March 8, I explained to the judge, I told committee members they were making Americans less safe, not more; that they were violating dozens of international and domestic laws, waging a war of aggression, committing crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity. “A chill should run through our very soul,” I insisted to Milliken, “as we remember when those words were used to indict another nation’s warmaking, a nation over which we stood in judgment.”

 

“And just as Good Germans were complicit in the crimes of their government not that very long ago, so too are we American citizens complicit in the crimes of our own government. Because we are complicit, we must speak out against this monstrous war in every nonviolent way possible if we want to absolve ourselves of that complicity.”

 

“Your Honor, I cannot stand by and watch these crimes continue. I must add my voice to the thousands of others crying out for an end to it until we awaken America’s conscience,” I stated. Then I looked at him directly and invited him to “help us wake our nation’s conscience” by ruling that what I did when I read the names of U.S. soldiers and Iraqis killed in this war was not a disruption but a civic duty.

 

The courtroom fell quiet for a moment. Judge Milliken paused, asked the prosecutors a couple more questions, asked Ed, me, and our attorney, Mark Goldstone, if we had anything else to say, paused again, and said “Sentenced to time served.”

 

Was Judge Milliken imbued with an unusual sense of justice? Is he among the growing majority of Americans opposed to the war and simply recognized an opportunity to do something about it? We’ll likely never know for sure. But I prefer to believe he spoke volumes with those four words: “Sentenced to time served.”

 

 

Mike Ferner <mailto:[email protected]> was in Washington participating in the Winter of Our Discontent’s 34-day fast against the war in Iraq. His book, Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq, (Praeger) is due out in August.

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