6 April 2003
With thousands of U.S. troops poised to overtake Baghdad with shock, awe and whatever else is necessary to subdue the 5 million Iraqis who live there, the question before the U.S. District Court in Denver last week was whether three nuns armed with wire cutters, hammers and their own blood constituted a threat to the national security of the United States of America.
The questions were: Were the nuns trying to sabotage the mighty U.S. government?
Did they undermine our national defense?
Did they damage the most powerful military on Earth?
Not allowed inside the courtroom was the other issue: Whether at least in principle the nuns might have a point.
So with worldwide attention focused on them, the women in blaze-orange prison suits sat before a jury and a smiling judge in a red bow tie and made their case.
Carol Gilbert, 55, Jackie Hudson, 68, and Ardeth Platte, 66, admitted to several facts for the prosecution.
Yes, they said, they did carefully snip through the chain-link fence on the site of the Minuteman missile silo near Greeley on the morning of Oct. 6, 2002. They chose the date deliberately because it was the anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan.
Yes, they cut the chain on a gate to enter the property, but they were careful not to damage the lock. A link on a chain or a fence can easily be fixed, Gilbert said. She'd done it many times herself back home in Baltimore.
Yes, they did in fact flail away with their household hammers on the rusty railroad tracks that are installed for transport of weapons on the site.
And, yes, absolutely, they spilled containers of their own blood into shapes of crosses on the tracks and on the wall of the missile silo.
"I've been tested. I don't have AIDS," Gilbert told the court. "We brought the blood in baby bottles. "
Then, with the bloody crosses drying in the autumn sun, the nuns sang a song about the sacred Earth and chanted, "Oh God, teach us how to be peacemakers in a hostile world."
After about 40 minutes of this, several soldiers driving Humvees crashed through the fence and, with their weapons drawn, surrounded the gray-haired women and handcuffed them.
Oh, there was one other thing in the federal government's case against the nuns: a rosary. Sister Gilbert had left hers behind.
It's Exhibit Z.
Despite the barrage of objections from the prosecutor on relevance, the soft-spoken Dominicans took every opportunity to explain their intent on that day.
They are people of conscience, they said. They have taken vows that require them to bear witness. In their church under their God, poverty, hunger, homelessness and weapons of mass destruction are an abomination.
"Any nuclear weapon, even by its very existence, is a crime of genocide," Gilbert said on the witness stand.
"In Germany, when they put the Jews on the trains and gassed them, it was legal. Nobody was breaking a law. Yet we all wonder how the people of Germany could have allowed Hitler to do this."
Now, the U.S. has nuclear missiles on high alert, poised to kill indiscriminately, and the nuns believe it was their duty - under the Nuremberg Principles, international law and the tenets of their powerful faith - to stand in opposition to them.
"I believed I had to go there to stop a crime against humanity," Gilbert said. "I knew this little hammer wasn't going to stop the Minuteman missile, but I could say to my God, 'This is not in my name. I'm not responsible."'
The sisters have long been part of Jonah House, a community founded in 1973 by former Jesuit priest Philip Berrigan.
Berrigan became famous for protesting the Vietnam War and demonstrating for nuclear disarmament. He spent 11 years in prison for acts of civil disobedience. He died in December. His widow, Elizabeth McAlister, attended the trial of the nuns.
In their closing arguments, the lawyers for the sisters reminded jurors that military officers had testified that the women had not jeopardized national defense or harmed the nuclear missiles at the site.
The prosecutor spoke again of the willful destruction, the bloody crosses and the affront to law, order and military security.
And diminutive Sister Platte thanked them all - the jurors, the judge, the prosecutor, even the FBI agents.
She talked about faith, peace and humanity amid war and death. She talked about trying to live a life that's pure and true and holy.
And then the defense of the three nuns in the blaze orange prison suits rested.
Some say it was a charade. Some say it was a sacrilege. Some say it was idealism run amok.
For the sisters, it is what gives their life meaning.
They took a stand for peace. They forced the U.S. government and the world to pay attention.
This week's verdict won't matter.
Diane Carman's column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org .
After deliberating for 2 1/2 hours the jury in the case of Sisters Jackie Hudson, Ardeth Platte and Carol Gilbert was sent home for the weekend by Judge Robert
Blackburn. They will reconvene and continue their deliberations on Monday at 9 AM. Forceful closing arguments and a last minute change in the jury instruction relating to
"intent" gave rise to new hope for the defense team and their clients. The courtroom was overflowing with supporters throughout the week. Persons from at least 12 other
states joined local activists in providing moral support throughout the proceedings.
The trial and the accompanying events brought together many people meeting for the first time and restored many old friendships. No matter the verdict, it will have a positive long term effect for many. Yesterday's personal testimony of the defendants broke a long spell in which it seemed they would be permanently muzzled, unable to tell the real story of last October 6. The hospitality of local folks was outstanding and bodes well for future events. I want to add my personal thanks to all those who helped, and pass on the many thank yous I've been asked to share.
The suspense of waiting several more days for a conclusion cannot diminish the many positive developments to this point. But we do want that final, just verdict for our courageous friends. Will let you know as soon as there is news. And if we can get written copies of Ardeth, Jacke and Carol's statements we'll pass them on.