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In Sentencing Radical Pacifists, Judge Miles Lord Assailed “Worship of the Bomb”

Photo by MAPW Australia | CC BY 2.0

Photo by MAPW Australia | CC BY 2.0

Federal District Judge Miles Lord, who died Dec. 10 at age 97, could have given me 10 years once. Instead, the famously outspoken judge, who was well known for protecting ordinary people from corporate crime and pollution, used the anti-nuclear case a group of us argued before him to deliver a remarkably scornful condemnation of nuclear weapons and of the corruption that protects them.

On August 10, 1984, Barb Katt and I did more than $36,000 damage to launch-control computers being built for Trident missile-firing submarines by Sperry Univac (now Unysis) in Eagan, Minnesota. It was the 9th in a series of 100 so-called Plowshares actions, one we’d planned for two years. After walking into the Sperry plant dressed in business suits, we used household hammers to smash two of the company’s missile-guidance computers then under construction. We “named” the wreckage by pouring blood over it because, as the philosopher Simone Weil said, “Nuclear weapons kill without being used by forcing people to starve.” We didn’t run away but waited for the authorities, explaining to workers in the room that we’d disarmed part of the government’s first-strike nuclear war machinery. One worker said later as a trial witness, “I’ve heard the word ‘Trident’ but I don’t know what it means.”

We were charged with felony “depredation” and were convicted by a jury after a three-day trial. Facing a maximum of 10 years in prison at a Nov. 8 sentencing, Barb and I urged Judge Lord to boldly denounce US nuclear war preparations that were then common knowledge. Judge Lord then did exactly that.

With the federal government today proceeding with a 1-trillion-dollar nuclear weapons modernization program, much like the one Ronald Reagan was overseeing in 1984, Judge Lord’s stunning critique of criminal corporate militarism is as relevant as ever. These are the judge’s sentencing remarks from the bench, as reported in the official transcript:

It is the allegation of these young people that they committed the acts here complained of as a desperate plea to the American people and its government to stop the military madness which they sincerely believe will destroy us all, friend and enemy alike.

They have made a plausible argument that international law prohibits what our country is doing by way of manufacturing weapons of mass destruction.

As I ponder over the punishment to be meted out to these two people who were attempting to unbuild weapons of mass destruction, we must ask ourselves: Can it be that those of us who build weapons to kill are engaged in a more sanctified endeavor than those who would by their acts attempt to counsel moderation and mediation as an alternative method of settling international disputes?

Why are we so fascinated by a power so great that we cannot comprehend its magnitude? What is so sacred about a bomb, so romantic about a missile? Why do we condemn and hang individual killers while extolling the virtues of warmongers? What is that fatal fascination which attracts us to the thought of mass destruction of our brethren in another country? Why can we even entertain the thought that all people on one side of an imaginary line must die and, if we be so ungodly cynical as to countenance that thought, have we given thought to the fact that in executing that decree we will also die? Who draws these lines and who has so decreed?

How many of the people in this democracy have seriously contemplated the futility of committing national suicide in order to punish our adversaries? Have we so little faith in our system of free enterprise, our capitalism and the fundamental concepts that are taught us in our constitutions and in our several bibles that we must, in order to protect ourselves from the spread of foreign ideologies, be prepared to die at our own hands? Such thinking indicates a great deal of lack of faith in our democracy, our body politic, our people and our institutions.

There are those in high places that believe Armageddon is soon to be upon us, that Christ will soon come to earth and take us all back with him to heaven. It would appear that much of our national effort is being devoted to helping with the process. It may even be a celebration of sorts. When the bombs go off, Christ won’t have to come to earth. We will all, believers and nonbelievers alike, meet him halfway.

The anomaly of this situation is that I am here called upon to punish two individuals who were charged with having caused damage to the property of a corporation in the amount of $36,000. It is this self-same corporation which only a few months ago was before me accused of having wrongfully embezzled from the U.S. government the sum of $3.6 million. The employees of this company succeeded in boosting the corporate profits by wrongfully and feloniously juggling the books. Since these individuals were all employees of a corporation, it appears that it did not occur to anyone in the office of the Attorney General of the United States that the actions of these men constituted a criminal conspiracy for which they might be punished. The government demanded only that Sperry pay back a mere 10 percent of the amount by which the corporation had been unlawfully enriched. Could it be that these corporate men who were working to build weapons of mass destruction received special treatment because of the nature of their work?

I am also called upon to determine the amount of restitution that is to be required by the two individuals who have done damage to the property of Sperry. The financial information obtained by the probation office indicated that neither of the defendants owes any money to anyone. While Ms. Katt has no assets, Mr. LaForge is comparatively well endowed. He owns a 1968 Volkswagen, a guitar, a sleeping bag, and $200 in cash.

The inexorable pressure which generates from those who are engaged in making a living and a profit from building military equipment, and the pork barreling that goes on in the halls of Congress to obtain more such contracts for the individual state, will in the ultimate consume itself in an atomic holocaust. These same factors exert a powerful pressure upon a federal judge in my position to go along with the theory that there is something sacred about a bomb and that those who raise their voices or their hands against it should be struck down as enemies of the people, no matter that in their hearts they feel and know that they are friends of the people.

Now conduct of this sort cannot be condoned under the guise of free speech. Neither should it be totally condemned as being subversive, traitorous, or treasonous in the category of espionage or some other bad things. I would here in this instance take the sting out of the Bomb, attempt in some way to force the government to remove the halo with which it seems to embrace any device which can kill and to place thereon a shroud, the shroud of death, destruction, mutilation, disease and debilitation.

If there be an adverse reaction to this sentence, I will anxiously await the protestations of those who complain of my attempts to correct the imbalance that now exists in a system that operates in such a manner as to provide one type of justice for the rich and a lesser type for the poor, one standard for the mighty and another for the meek, and a system which finds its humanness and objectivity is sublimated to military madness and the worship of the Bomb.

A judge sitting here as I do is not called upon to do that which is politically expedient or popular but is called upon to exercise calm and deliberate judgment in a manner best suited to accomplish, and accommodate, and vindicate the rights of the people acting through its government and the rights of those people who are the subject matter of such actions. The most popular thing to do at this particular time would be to sentence [Katt and LaForge] to a 10-year period of imprisonment, and some judges might be disposed to do just that.

[Thereupon, the sentences were imposed: six months imprisonment, suspended, with six months unsupervised probation.]

I am also aware of the thrust of the argument, which would say this would encourage others to do likewise. If others do likewise, they must be dealt with at that time. I am also impressed with the argument that this might in some way constitute a disparity of sentence, that [Katt and LaForge] have not been properly punished because some others might not be deterred from doing [what they did]. I really wonder about the constitutionality of sentencing one person for a crime that may be committed by another person at another time and place.

It is also difficult for me to equate the sentence I here give you — for destroying $36,000 worth of property, because you have been charged — with those who stole $3.6 million worth of property and were not charged, demoted, or in any way punished. My conscience is clear. We will adjourn the Court.

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John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.

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