On August 6, 1945 the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, it dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki. These nuclear weapons killed over 200,000 people, almost all civilians, and injured many more.
On Tuesday morning, June 20, 2006, a Roman Catholic priest and two veterans were arrested at a nuclear missile silo in North Dakota. Fr. Carl Kabat, 72, Greg Boertje-Obed, 51, and Michael Walli, 57, sit in jail in North Dakota awaiting a federal criminal trial because of weapons of mass destruction and because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Their crime? They tried to disarm one of the 1700+ nuclear weapons in North Dakota. On June 26, 2006, they went to the silo of a 40 ton Minuteman III first-strike nuclear missile and wrote on it “If you want peace, work for justice.” Then they hammered on its lock and poured some of their own blood over it. They also spray painted “It’s a sin to build a nuclear weapon” and hung banners on the fence.
The three dressed as clowns “to show that humor and laughter are key elements in the struggle to transform the structures of destruction and death. Clowns as court jesters were sometimes the only ones able to survive after speaking truth to power.”
A federal judge has cleared the way for the priest and two veterans to be tried before a federal jury on September 13, 2006 for damaging the Minuteman III. If convicted on the felony charges of criminal damage to property, each faces up to 10 years in federal prison and fines of up to
Warheads launched from the Minuteman III missile silo can reach any destination within 6000 miles in 35 minutes. The nuclear bomb launched from a Minuteman silo carries 27 times the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It produces uncontrollable radiation, massive heat and a blast capable of vaporizing and leveling everything within a 50-mile radius. Outside the 50 square miles — extending to hundreds of miles — the blast, wide-spread heat, firestorms and neutron and gamma rays are intended to kill, severely wound and poison every living thing and cause long-term damage to the environment.
Fr. Kabat has been a Catholic priest for over forty years. Greg Boertje-Obed was a First Lieutenant in the US Army. Mike Walli served two tours in Vietnam. All three men were born in small towns or rural areas of the Midwest. Walli and Boertje-Obed are members of the Loaves and Fishes Catholic Worker community in Duluth, Minnesota. Together they are called the “Weapons of Mass Destruction Here Plowshares.” The Plowshares movement seeks to follow the instructions of Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) to “beat your swords into plowshares.”
At the time of their arrest, the three specifically linked their actions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Two of the most terrible war crimes occurred on August 6th and 9th, 1945. On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, killing more than 100,000 people (including U.S. prisoners of war). Three days later the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, Japan, killing more than 50,000 people. Use of these weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations were abominable crimes against humanity.”
They went on to say “U.S. leaders speak about the dangers of other nations acquiring nuclear weapons, but they fail to act in accordance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which commits the U.S. to take steps to disarm its weapons of mass destruction. We act in order to bring attention to people’s responsibility for disarming weapons of state terrorism. We can begin the process of exposing U.S. weapons of mass destruction, naming them as abominations that cause desolation, and transforming them to objects that promote life.”
Because the Minuteman III is a weapon of mass destruction, they argued, it is illegal under international law. “We are not criminals,” Fr. Kabat told the court. “We are following the laws of morality. These weapons are the crimes against humanity!”
Mike Walli enlisted in the army as a young man. With the experience of two tours in Vietnam, he said, “This is not about our national defense. The hundreds of Minuteman III nuclear weapons are offensive weapons of mass destruction. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached that the United States is the chief purveyor of violence in the world. We must become a people-oriented society rather than a thing-oriented society. We must kick the war economy habit.”
Greg Boertje-Obed, who, after his time as an officer in the military, married and is the father of an eleven year old daughter, told me “There is a sense of righteousness and harmony that comes from being in jail on August 6. When I was in the military, I was trained to fight and “win” a nuclear war. It became clear that all the preparations for a nuclear war were wrong. In contrast Jesus taught “Love your enemies…don’t fear those who can kill the body… those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” Now is the time to turn away from the ways of violence. Treat others the way we want to be treated. Now is the time to take steps to help the starving, ill, orphaned, weak, war-oppressed, and downtrodden all over the world. It is time to turn away from the bomb and the possibility of ending all life on our planet and to end the nuclear nightmare.
Fr. Carl Kabat spent several years in the Philippines and Brazil. “August 6th and August 9th are appropriate times to be in jail,” he reflected. “We are here to witness against the insanity of nuclear weapons. When these bombs were dropped on the Japanese I was too young to realize what had happened. Those bombings were war crimes that we, even today, do not acknowledge. The indiscriminate killing of children, women, old people and everyone else certainly cannot be accepted under any just theory of war. Perhaps the fact that we are in jail can help us as a nation remember the criminality of those days in the past. None of us can make up for the killings in the past, but there is a possibility that our being in jail during this time might help stop such insanity from being repeated in the future.”
North Dakota is home to more nuclear weapons than any other of the 50 states. The Bureau of Atomic Scientists estimated that the state contained more than 1700 nuclear warheads, not counting the ones planted in concrete silos in the ground.
In a statement, the defendants challenged the hypocrisy of U.S. nuclear weapons policy. “US leaders speak about the dangers of other nations acquiring nuclear weapons while our nation has thousands of horrific weapons of mass destruction. Our nation fails to act in accordance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which commits the U.S. to take steps to disarm its weapons of mass destruction. We act in order to bring attention to people’s responsibility for disarming weapons of state terrorism.”
Refusing to dismiss the charges, the judge stated: “The laws of the United States do not support the theory that an individual has a right or responsibility to correct a perceived violation of international law or humanitarian law or tribal law or religious law by willfully destroying government property.”
Francis Boyle, a professor of law at the University of Illinois, submitted a legal opinion to the court in support of dismissing the charges: “Where the ‘property’ allegedly damaged is part of an illegal and criminal threat of use of a weapon of mass destruction, these defendants acted lawfully and reasonably to prevent the most egregious and fundamentally prohibited of all crimes, war crimes.”
Testimony from the Mayor of Hiroshima about the effects of nuclear weapons and the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice outlawing nuclear weapons were submitted to the court.
The jury trial will be held in Bismarck, North Dakota. Defendants, who remain in jail awaiting trial, are now dressed in black and white striped jail jumpsuits. No word yet on how they intend to dress for their appearance in court.
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and teaches at Loyola University New Orleans School of Law. Bill is a legal advisor to the protestors. You can reach him at [email protected]
He wrote this article for Japan Focus.
More about the Weapons of Mass Destruction Here Plowshares can be found here.
For more information about the upcoming trial contact the Loaves and Fishes Community in Duluth at 218.728.0629 or Nukewatch at 715.472.4185. Copies of some pleadings in the case, pictures and updates from the men are posted on the Jonah House website