Earlier this year, Michael Walli made a blunt confession in a Tennessee court. "I was employed as a terrorist for the United States Government," he told the judge hearing his case. And sure enough, Walli is facing down a potential 35 years in prison for what his prosecutors successfully argued was an action that fit the "federal crime of terrorism."
Walli is an army combat veteran of the U.S. invasion of Vietnam, and is certainly not the first to take some personal responsibility for America's genocidal occupation and relentless bombing of Southeast Asia (with at least 3 million murdered). Indeed, as the recent book Kill Anything that Moves reminds us, American military units were committing so many atrocities that the Pentagon opened up its own, secretive war crimes investigation unit.
But his participation in such crimes is not what led Walli to that Tennessee court. Rather, it was a peaceful protest against nuclear terrorism and the U.S. construction -- in clear violation of the nonproliferation treaty -- of a new generation of nuclear weapons. Unlike Iran, the U.S. has used -- and threatened to use -- nuclear weapons for almost 70 years, in the form of atomic bombs as well as depleted uranium-coated ammunition that has left a cancerous wasteland behind in Iraq, among other countries where it has been used by U.S. and NATO forces.
Walli, joined by Sister Megan Rice (aged 82) and Greg Boertje-Obed, all veteran peacemakers, entered the Y12 nuclear weapons site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on July 28, 2012, cutting through four fences and making their way right to the Enriched Uranium Materials Facility which, as the venerable magazine Nuclear Resister notes, is "the largest storehouse of bomb-grade uranium in the world. They marked the building with blood, painted disarmament messages on the wall and hung banners. Symbolic of beginning to transform swords into plowshares, they also hammered a few chips of concrete from the building's foundation before being seen by security guards and arrested."
It was the latest in a 33-year legacy of scores of similar protests known as Plowshares Actions that have directly confronted militarism in its most physical forms, from pouring blood on B-52 bombers to hammering on nuclear weapons nose cones at a General Electric factory in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. All such actions have been well-planned, almost always involve a faith-based statement, and are committed to non-violence.
On June 20 of this year, Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama, according to an Associated Press dispatch filed from Berlin, appealed "for a new citizen activism in the free world" to reduce nuclear stockpiles and confront climate change. Yet his Attorney General has piled on the charges against the Plowshares activists who were engaging in just such citizen activism. All are scheduled to be sentenced in September. While lengthy prison sentences have often been the fate of those confronting the nuclear state, the equation of non-violent protest with terrorism is consistent with what critics have long argued is one of the main purposes of so-called anti-terrorism legislation: squashing dissent.
The realities of nuclear weapons development
In his usual unctuous fashion, Obama's dishonest speech in Berlin belied the facts of nuclear weapons development. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), at the start of 2013 eight states possessed approximately 4,400 operational nuclear weapons. Nearly 2,000 of these are kept in a state of high operational alert. SIPRI also notes that if all nuclear warheads are counted -- operational warheads, spares, those in both active and inactive storage, and intact warheads scheduled for dismantlement -- the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel possess a total of approximately 17,270 nuclear weapons. As SIPRI indicates in their 2013 annual report, the five leading nuclear weapons powers "appear determined to retain their nuclear arsenals indefinitely." Last year, NATO concluded that nuclear weapons would remain a core component of their arsenal and strategic planning (with no peep of protest from Canada).
Canada's response to this reality is, among other activities, a secretive working plan to ship large amounts of bomb-grade uranium from Chalk River through the Ottawa Valley and to the United States for "reprocessing." Anyone who thinks this uranium will not wind up in a new nuclear weapon might be interested in some oceanfront Arizona property. Until 2008, Canada had mined more uranium than any other country in the world -- including the raw materials for those first flashes of unforgettable fire that decimated two of Japan's civilian cities during World War II -- and now accounts for over 15 per cent of worldwide production. Among its largest clients are countries that continue to violate the non-proliferation treaty. At the same time, those who are front-line victims of the chain of nuclearism are indigenous people who have mined the uranium and had its waste dumped on their lands.
Worldwide war spending, including for nuclear weapons, now tops $1.75 trillion, an amount perhaps so infinite that it becomes meaningless. As hunger and other social ills plague billions of people, few in the political world dare question this massive waste of resources, including the over $20 billion annually flushed down Canada's own rathole of militarism. Indeed, the official NDP opposition last ran on a platform of equaling the Harper government's war spending.
Reflecting on the nature of militarism
As we approach the landmark days in August marking the anniversaries of the murderous use of atomic weapons against the undefended cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is a good time to not only reflect on the nature of nuclearism, but militarism itself. We must also remember the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden, the napalming and carpet bombing of Southeast Asia, the NATO terror bombings of the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq -- clearly war crimes as defined at Nuremberg -- as well as all atrocities supposedly committed in the name of religion, freedom and democracy.
Militarism creates its own state of permanent exception: anything done in the name of "national defence" is above the law, any calls for accountability are laughed off as unpatriotic, and resistance is treated as heresy. While eminent scholars Richard Falk and Robert Jay Lifton once argued that nukes were "indefensible weapons," perhaps it is time to shift our frame to the whole business of war as not only indefensible, but completely incompatible with democracy. Shifting the language might help as well, reminding people that War is Always Terrorism.
Canada's own War Department, it was recently revealed, is so bloated, so over-funded, that it has been sitting on a pile of over $2 billion in unspent cash. While social programs suffer, the homeless die on Canadian streets, and women cannot find shelter from male violence, the War Department remains a sinkhole of taxpayer monies, the largest single use of discretionary federal spending and one that is increasingly immune to oversight given its refusal to share details -- even with officials such as the Parliamentary Budget Officer -- of its operations and spending plans. Indeed, the Ottawa Citizen reports that former CSIS head Richard Fadden, now a deputy minister at the War Department, has recently written to say he will not provide Parliament with any details on new warships, armoured vehicles, and other unnecessary purchases.
All this serves as part of a long-standing trend in which democracy is sacrificed on the altar of a war economy. Whether it is the clear deception that the Harper government continues to employ to try and sucker Canadians into spending scores of billions on stealth fighter bombers, shutting down Parliament to prevent hearings on Canadian complicity in the torture of Afghans, or the secretive plans to ship by truck highly radioactive uranium down Highway 417 along the Ottawa River so the U.S. can continue to upgrade its nuclear weapons, it is clear that the objections of citizens have been pushed to the side as an unwanted annoyance.
This is, of course, not new. Indeed, shortly after the passage of Canada's Anti-terrorism Act, resisters against militarism, who were holding weekly vigils in 2002 to transform Toronto's Moss Park Armoury into housing for the homeless and underhoused, found "Security Zone in Effect" signs around the perimeter, language coming directly out of the Anti-terrorism Act and clearly aimed at the organizers from Homes not Bombs. Similarly, at Hancock Air Force Base in New York State, special injunctions seeking to bar peaceful protesters from the entrance have been issued to maintain the silence around the drone strikes that are launched from within. At protests outside Canada's drone manufacturer of choice, L3 Wescam, protesters were threatened with civil action for non-violent trespass.
The antidote for such diseases as militarism and the secrecy that undergirds it is democratic participation, perhaps through education, boycott and protest. For others, it may take the form of direct interference with the tools of global genocide via Plowshares Actions or the non-violent civil resistance action that last week saw 23 people arrested at a Honeywell plant in Kansas City, where key components for that new generation of nuclear weapons are being developed.
Not everyone is prepared to risk jail for their conscience. But at the very least, we can support those who, with love in their hearts and a passion for justice that burns brighter than any weapons flash, continue to push back against the state of exception called militarism. One thing everyone can do is write a letter to members of Transform Plowshares now looking at being jailed until 2048 -- essentially life imprisonment -- for their simple act of saying "No." They are also encouraging people to send letters to the judge who will sentence them in September. More information is available at http://transformnowplowshares.wordpress.com/.
Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.
Photo: Peace activists Rev. Carl Kabot, Greg Obed, and Michael Walli. Credit: Scott Schumacher/flickr
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