Three men protesting the presence of weapons of mass destruction in North Dakota were sentenced to federal prison terms of over three years and ordered to pay $17,000 in restitution by a federal judge in Bismarck. The three dressed as clowns and went to the Echo-9 launch site of the intercontinental Minuteman III nuclear missile in rural North Dakota in June 2006. They broke the lock off the fence and put up peace banners and posters. One said: “Swords into plowshares – Spears into pruning hooks.” They poured some of their own blood on the site, hammered on the nuclear launching facility and waited to be arrested.
The Minuteman III missile has over 20 times the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and can reach a target within 6000 miles in 35 minutes. The men called their action the “Weapons of Mass Destruction Here Plowshares.”
Dressed in faded black striped prison uniforms and blue cloth slippers, they appeared before the federal court for sentencing. Fr. Carl Kabat, 73, a catholic priest from St. Louis with a life-long history of resistance to nuclear weapons was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Greg Boetje-Obed, 52, a former Navy officer living with his family in the Catholic Worker community in Duluth Minnesota was given a 12 month and one day prison sentence. Michael Walli, 58, also with the Loaves and Fishes Catholic Worker in Duluth received 8 months. All were ordered to pay $17,000 restitution.
During their trial, the men openly admitted try to disarm the nuclear weapon. They pointed out to the jury that each one of these missiles was a devastating weapon of mass destruction, a killing machine precisely designed to murder hundreds of thousands. Testimony by experts about the illegality of these weapons of mass destruction under international law and their effects were excluded by the court and never heard by the jury.
The 40 ton Minuteman III site they damaged lies deep in rural North Dakota, at a site called Echo-9 about 100 miles north of Bismarck. Coiled beneath the surface of a bland concrete bunker, it is clearly visible from the gravel road. In fact, the otherwise pastoral countryside of farms and silos is full of nuclear weapon silos. One nuclear weapon launching site lies just across the road from a big farmhouse, another just down the road from a camp for teens. There are 150 other such nuclear launching facilities in North Dakota alone.
At the sentencing, Father Carl Kabat, who has already spent 16 years in prison for peace protests, spoke simply and directly to the court and prosecutor. “I believe that you, brother judge and brother prosecutor, know that the Minuteman III at E-9 is insane, immoral and illegal, but your actions protected that insanity, that immorality and that illegality. Brother judge, you could have possibly been a Rosa Parks, but your actions said “no.” We all can openly and publicly condemn North Korea for nuclear bombs. We can openly and publicly condemn Iraq for nuclear weapons and go to war with them. We can openly and publicly condemn Iran for nuclear buildup, but we do not publicly condemn the United States for the same?”
Fr. Kabat then challenged all of us, “What is the use of post marking our mail with exhortations to “Pray for Peace” and then spending billions of dollars on atomic armed submarines, thermonuclear weapons and ballistic missiles?”
Michael Walli reaffirmed his continuing conviction of the illegality and immorality of these weapons. He pointed out that Irish Courts allowed juries to hear about international law. Recently, after learning that US jets were stopping at Shannon Airport to refuel on their way to bomb Iraq, the Pitstop Plowshares went onto the runway, poured their blood on it and started to take up the tarmac to prevent additional flights. After two mistrials, these peace protestors were acquitted on all counts earlier this year by an Irish jury who heard an expert on international law and other witnesses explain the illegality of the U.S. actions. To conclude his sentencing statement, the Peace Prayer of St. Francis was read into the record.
Greg Boetje-Obed appealed to the judge to consider the testimony of the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki about the horrific effects of a tiny nuclear weapon on their communities, testimony the court would not allow the jury to hear. He asked the judge to re-consider expert testimony from Professor Francis Boyle about the criminality of nuclear weapons under international law and the UN resolutions calling for nuclear disarmament, evidence also kept from the jury.
The judge challenged Greg Boertje-Obed’s decision to take actions that risked a year in prison instead of staying home with his family. “Why would one leave a wife and daughter at home to engage in juvenile acts of vandalism to protest nuclear weapons? I would think your commitment to your family should far outweigh your calling to such actions.” Greg’s wife, Michelle Naar Obed, was in the courtroom during this exchange. After the sentencing was over, Michelle shook her head and said, “If Greg had left us his for a year and risked his life to go to war to kill people, no one would question him they would call him a hero! But, because he risked time in jail to act out his convictions for peace, people question his commitment to his family. That is a tragic.”
What does it say about our society that personal sacrifices to go to war to kill people in war are praised, while personal sacrifices for peace are condemned? What does it say that intentional destruction of cities and communities and families and individuals are considered totally legal, while actions trying to dismantle weapons of mass destruction send people to prison? Until those interested in peace are willing to make the same sacrifices as those interested in war, peace will not prevail. These three men have proven they are willing to pay the price for peace. Their courage and sacrifice challenges us all.
While these men serve their time in prison, one hundred fifty weapons of mass destruction sit peacefully free and protected in the fields of North Dakota. The law protects these weapons and finds those who try to protect the world from their holocaust criminals. If the weapons are ever used, the people of North Dakota will not need the news to tell them. The thunderous fiery launch of these weapons will signal the failure of justice and the end of life as we know it.
For more information about the men 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, updates and addresses for the men are posted on the Jonah House website http://www.jonahhouse.org
BILL QUIGLEY is a human rights lawyer and professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. Bill and Dan Gregor assisted the defendants in this matter. You can reach Bill at Quigley@loyno.edu