24 July 2003
We like to think of ourselves as a just nation. So if you want to hold onto that thought, you might want to stop reading
Because today, we go to church, where we can go to school on real injustice.
Our story today is of the three nuclear nuns, who, in the name of peace and in the name of Jesus, committed this crime at a Minuteman III site in northeastern Colorado: They cut a chain-link fence; they banged a missile silo with a hammer; they poured some of their own blood on the silo; they waited in their hazmat suits to be taken away.
And if your government has its way, the nuns, who have dedicated their lives to saving the lives of others, will spend the next five to eight years in federal prison.
Sentencing is set for Friday. Protests are set at 49 nuclear silos statewide for Saturday.
I know what you're thinking, that I must not be telling the entire story.
We don't really throw three nuns in federal prison for five to eight years for what was basically trespassing. We don't really throw anyone, nuns or otherwise, in federal prison for five to eight years for nonviolent protest, pretending that what they did was sabotage.
But we do. And it appears we may. And we are left to ask ourselves where the real crime is and what exactly we're protecting ourselves from by locking away people whose lives are dedicated to not injuring anyone.
OK, there is a little more to the story. If you're the government and - as a policy - you refuse to say that you won't use nuclear weapons in a first strike, you will find people like Dominican nuns Carol Gilbert, Jackie Hudson and Ardeth Platte, well, annoying.
No, they're more than annoying. They're persistently annoying. And apparently being annoying can get you five to eight.
They've got priors, of course. Two came to Colorado from Jonah House in Baltimore, made famous by the late protester Phil Berrigan. They belong to the Plowshares movement, which believes in the biblical entreaty to beat your swords therein.
The government says the sentence would deter them and others. They don't buy it.
"To be honest with you," said Gilbert, "if they wanted to stop the whole thing, all they had to do is say on Day One, 'It's over,' and there's no story.
"And the same thing on Friday (at the sentencing). If they want to end the story, we get time served. If they don't, the ripple effect will only be more."
If you check their mail, you'll see the peace movement, growing out of the Iraq war, has embraced the three, who usually conduct their protests with little notice.
Without the publicity, this is the story of what happens when the blood falls on the nuclear silo and no one is there to hear it.
Without the publicity, Gilbert and friends would still be out there, though. If the judge sentences them to time served - they've already done seven months - they'll be back. And that's what you have to understand about them.
"I couldn't not do it," said Gilbert, who's wearing a "We Found Them" T-shirt, showing missile sites as America's WMDs. She says once you accept nonviolence as a way of life everything leads from there.
Platte says doing nothing about nuclear danger is much the same as having done nothing to stop the Holocaust.
She argues, "I don't want some child, generations from now, to ask, 'Why didn't you do anything? Why were you complacent?' "
You may disagree with their actions. You may disagree with their conclusions. But I wonder who questions their motives.
Actually, I don't have to wonder. In rejecting a reduced sentence, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Brown makes the stunning legal argument that since nuclear weapons are a good thing and that, in his tortured words, "their existence has prevented their use since August 1945," the nuns deserve their five to eight years. He then goes on to cite the example of those who would give nuclear secrets to enemy nations as if there's some comparison to protesters attacking chain-link fences.
Let's face it, dissent is not exactly encouraged these days. Ask, for example, the TV correspondent who quoted soldiers as wanting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. According to Matt Drudge, an administration official forwarded him the news that the correspondent has been "outed" as both gay and, gasp, Canadian.
I went to church to see Gilbert and Platte, who were as warm and welcoming as you'd expect. They were calm in the face of their sentencing and yet eager to make their case. Not that they're looking to be martyrs. They don't want to go to prison. Platte, 67, figures she might not live to the end of her sentence.
But that didn't diminish the light in her eyes when she talked about the future.
"I think this is a turning point," she said. "Maybe it's because I'm 67 years old and I've been in it for many decades.
"It feels like we've reached a turning point of history, what we call the 100th monkey. And that there's a new day coming where people are willing to participate in the democracy."
Maybe. For starters, I'd be happy if, on Friday in court, Judge Robert Blackburn participates in justice.
Mike Littwin's column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Call him at 303-892-5428 or e-mail him at