Public can help get just sentences for Bangor naval base peace activists

March 23, 2011 

The 9.0 magnitude earthquake, tsunami, and radiation leaks in Japan could hardly have come at a more providential moment for the five religious activists scheduled to be sentenced Monday in Tacoma for their actions during the wee hours of Nov. 2, 2009, at the Kitsap-Bangor Naval Base.

In an effort to raise public awareness of the unspeakable horrors of the Trident nuclear submarines and the huge stockpile of warheads based at Bangor, two Catholic priests, a nun and two grandmotherly pacifists were arrested and detained for trespassing on federal property and damaging a chain-link fence. After symbolically pouring their blood and planting sunflowers, they were handcuffed, hooded and held on the ground for three hours.

The Navy promptly issued a press release which flatly stated, “At no time was the safety of Navy personnel, property, or the public threatened in any way.” That admission must have caused some consternation later. If indeed no harm, then why cry foul?

The group, Disarm Now Plowshares, was convicted in U.S. District Court on Dec. 13, 2010, following a four-day trial during which the court chose to ignore arguments about the immorality and illegality of nuclear weapons.

The jury found Father Bill “Bix” Bichsel, SJ, 82, of Tacoma; Sister Anne Montgomery, RSCJ, 84, of Redwood City, Calif.; Father Steve Kelly, SJ, 61, of Oakland, Calif.; Susan Crane, 67, of Baltimore, Md.; and Lynne Greenwald, 61, of Bremerton guilty of criminal trespass, destruction of government property and conspiracy. Each could face up to 10 years in prison.

When they took bolt cutters and made their way through fences toward the ultimate weapons of mass destruction, they accepted responsibility for the consequences. All have been prisoners of conscience before.

In 1996, Bichsel served one year in federal prison after being sentenced by then 87-year-old federal Judge J. Robert Elliott for vigorously protesting the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. The same judge once enjoined the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from holding a nonviolent protest march.

The five would prefer their supporters focus on the future security of life on this planet, rather than petition the court for leniency. But that doesn’t mean concerned persons can’t.

U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin H. Settle of Shelton is in an unenviable position as he weighs sentencing options. No reasonable person would maintain that incarcerating these aging peace activists outweighs the benefits of the valuable community services they otherwise perform. They harm no one and threaten nothing, except perhaps our collective conscience.

Bichsel and Greenwald spend their days providing aid and comfort to the addicted and afflicted through the Catholic Worker community in Tacoma. The others are similarly engaged in comforting the disturbed while disturbing the comfortable.

If the judge absolutely, positively must sentence them to something besides community service, home tracking devices would seem an appropriate fit.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.” Plowshares and their supporters would agree his sentiments are even truer today.

The catastrophe in Japan should remind us that so long as mere mortals are a factor, nuclear safeguards are never foolproof.

The U.S. Energy Department revealed in November it had reviewed 16 alcohol-related incidents by agents assigned to transport nuclear weapons in trucks during the period 2007 through 2009. In one instance, an agent was arrested for intoxication. In another instance, two agents were handcuffed following an incident outside a bar.

Evidently, federal prosecutors have higher priorities than intoxicated truckers.

David Rupel, a retired systems consultant with DSHS, has ties to social justice circles. A member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors, he can be reached at Davidr1949@yahoo.com.

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