Posted September 24, 2011
Patrick O'Neill: Y-12 protestors' sentences too harsh for the charges
There's a saying among lawbreakers: "If you can't do the time, don't
do the crime." There's also another saying for law-keepers: "Make the
punishment fit the crime."
The latter was not the case recently in
Judge Bruce Guyton handed down several severely punitive sentences of
up to eight months in federal prison with no chance of parole for
defendants found guilty in
On that sweltering summer day more than 14 months ago, I watched 13
people, among them four Catholic nuns and a Catholic priest, step onto
a patch of grass — moving from state to federal property — in broad
daylight and in full view of more than 100 uniformed police officers
Acting in the nonviolent tradition of Indian pacifist leader Mohandas
Gandhi, the group, which stood opposed to the production, testing and
possible use of nuclear weapons, engaged in open resistance to Y-12's
nuclear weapons program. After a few minutes the friendly group
(several police officers kindly gave water to some of the elderly
folks who were wilting in the heat) was rounded up by police in what
was a gentle, largely symbolic and moving act of civil disobedience.
Those of us on the other side of the fence cheered our friends as they
were handcuffed and taken to jail.
The folks arrested at Y-12 that day were among a cadre of some of the
nation's best-known anti-war and anti-nuclear activists who had come
together at nearby
Nuclear-Free Future," a weekend conference about ways our nation and
the world can move out from under the ominous cloud of nuclearism.
Locally, the conference was sponsored by the
The 13 defendants (now 12 after the untimely death of Sister Jackie
of conscience take a stand, risk personal freedom and subject
themselves to arrest in order to challenge unjust government policies.
In past eras, civil disobedience has been successfully employed to
oppose British tyranny (the
segregation, to gain suffrage for women and in opposition to the
Those of us who are nuclear abolitionists believe nuclear weapons
represent the preeminent threat to human survival. Preventing nuclear
war requires abolishing those weapons of mass destruction. There has
never been a weapon developed that was not eventually used in war. Any
use of nuclear weapons would be horrific beyond imagination. Untold
millions could die. Preventing nuclear war is the life's work of many
of those arrested at Y-12. These are good people who devote their
lives to warning the rest of us about the moral imperative of nuclear
While most readers likely believe some form of punishment was in order
for the 12, it is also critical that said punishment be reasonable in
light of the offense. The response of the federal government in
on most of these activists for what was a minor transgression of the
law. Three of my friends — Bonnie Urfer, Michael Walli and Steve
Baggarly — will miss Christmas with their families this year because
of their harsh sentences.
Throughout their sentencing, Assistant
stressed to Guyton the importance of imposing stiff sentences as a
deterrent. Rather than concern themselves with deterrence, Guyton and
Kirby would have better served society if they had recognized the
important role those defendants play in keeping a check on the
military-industrial complex. Our democracy needs people like those 13
brave folks, who stood on principle and took a risk for peace. Why
deter them? Their punishment surely did not fit the crime, but those
good people of conscience are doing the time for the rest of us.
Patrick O'Neill [mtoneill at aol.com] is cofounder of the Fr. Charlie
Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner, N.C.