Is Pacifism Terrorism in Tennessee?

Under cover of darkness on July 28th, 2012 three members of Transform Now Plowshares used wire cutters to breach the fence at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  The group, which included an 83-year-old nun, were all pacifists who had engaged in civil disobedience over the years in support of their anti-war beliefs.  They expected to be arrested immediately, but when no guard appeared they moved deeper into the complex, cutting through three more fences before reaching a storage facility containing highly enriched uranium.  In the hours before the guards finally appeared, the protestors planted an anti-war banner in front of the building, spray painted peace slogans on one of its walls, and poured small amounts of blood on it as well.

A huge outcry followed.  People were not scandalized by the fact that the most deadly weapons of mass destruction were being assembled in their midst.  Instead, the scandal was about the massive embarrassment these three principled people caused the government.  The press howled that security was so lax that it couldn’t even keep an 83-year-old nun out of the plant where we assemble nuclear weapons.

The government’s response was swift and harsh.  Instead of the typical trespassing charges that usually result in fines and at most, sentences of several months, the government charged the three with sabotage and depredation of government property.  Both counts are considered violent acts that fall under the definition of “federal crimes of terrorism.”  The activists were convicted in May of this year and will be sentenced in September.  They face up to 30 years in prison for their symbolic acts of cutting fences and spray painting a building.

My attention was focused on this appalling situation by a response I received to the blog I posted last week.  I am reprinting most of it below:

“I am giving a sermon on ‘Swords into Plowshares’ at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Muskegon, Michigan next Sunday.  We shall begin with your father’s Strange Fruit sung by a beautiful teen, followed by a reflection on the travesty of injustice in the trial of Trayvon Martin.  My sermon will connect your birth parents’ life and final letter with the upcoming sentencing of the three courageous nonviolent resisters who broke into the nuclear weapons facility in Tennessee.  They face 30 years—what amounts to a death sentence.  Letters requesting ‘downward departure’ in the sentencing can be sent to the judge via attorney Bill Quigley.” (See for details.)

Downward departure is a legal concept that enables a judge, in response to special circumstances, to reduce the length of a prison sentence from the longer term the guidelines recommend the judge impose.  Such action is more likely to make a difference in this case because, evidently, the judge is troubled by the government’s characterization of the defendants’ acts.  Supporters in the courtroom during the trial report that the judge asked the prosecutors, “Don’t you find it a little troubling that Congress would write a law that wouldn’t let me distinguish between peace activists and terrorists?”  I urge RFC community members to add their voices to the rising chorus in support of this downward departure request.

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