May 16, 2008
The Baltimore Sun News Paper
Page 19 A - Commentary
"Lessons from the Catonsville Nine"
by Ron Manuto and Sean Patrick O'Rourke
Forty years ago tomorrow, nine committed followers of Christ entered the Selective Service Office in Catonsville . They moved past three surprised office workers, who questioned what they were doing but did not stop them. The nine quickly gathered 378 1-A draft files in wire baskets, then took them to the parking lot and immolated them with a homemade version of napalm. They prayed quietly over the burning papers until the police arrested them 15 minutes
So began one of the most celebrated - or infamous - acts of civil disobedience in the nation's history. What made it so significant was its disturbing resonance for millions of Catholics in the U.S. War challenges every religious virtue; it tests the conflict between belief and civil act as nothing else can. Now, four decades later, we are again in a war in a country we can barely identify, a
country whose language, people, religion, history and culture we neither know nor understand.
The Catonsville Nine took Christ's teachings seriously, particularly his lecture from the Sermon on the Mount, where resisting evil became the moral cornerstone of the Christian faith. For them,
there was no separation between belief and action. One either lived the moral code of Christ, without exemption, or abandoned it. For those of religious integrity, one cannot pretend to be Christian and
then live as something else.
By 1968, the Vietnam War was ripping America apart. Our actions seemed insane, our rationales ever shifting, our goal never clear. The impact on Vietnamese society as well as our troops was confusing, demoralizing and deadly. What was clear, however, was that we were dropping more than 9 million tons of bombs on Indochina 's military and civilian populations. We were dropping 72 million liters of biochemical poisons on the land and its people. And of course there was hell's fire: napalm. We used 400,000 tons of it.
By May of 1968 the Catonsville Nine had enough. They chose to directly confront the state, to protest where the nation's leaders had taken us.
The Nine were not naïve. Philip Berrigan thought their actions would probably be viewed as arrogant. Certainly they would invite scorn, punishment and perhaps the worst of responses: silence. He was wrong.
For many, their actions were stunning. Many Americans fondly recall a group of people who would not be numbed by the killing.
Yet, Mr. Berrigan's concern about silence lingers. Silence in the face of evil - whether launched against a human fetus, a child subjected to "shock and awe" or a civilian whose death is defined as
collateral damage - makes us all an accomplice to the unforgivable. In a play written by Daniel Berrigan based upon the trial transcripts of their conviction, Philip argued:
"Let lawmakers, judges and lawyers think less of the law, and more of justice; less of legal ritual, more of human rights. To our bishops and superiors, we say: Learn something about the gospel and something about illegitimate power. When you do, you will liquidate your investments, take a house in the slums, or even join us in jail."
The story of the Catonsville Nine should reignite our examination of why we find ourselves where we do. Most wars are less about ideology than money, less about providing security than maintaining power, less about faith than profit. Someone benefits, and it is never the soldier.
As we poured billions into Vietnam - and are now in the process of pouring several trillion into a vast and complex void called Iraq - whose interests are served? The Catonsville Nine would
say there is no escape from the question.
Ron Manuto writes on civil rights and legal issues from California .
His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sean Patrick O'Rourke is chairman of the communication studies
department at Furman University in Greenville , S.C. His e-mail is
Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun