THE PLOWSHARES SCANDAL
When Greg Boertje-Obed, Megan Rice and Michael Walli made their way through three fences, across a sixty-foot wide gravel Perimeter Intrusion Detection and Assessment System zone, passing by numerous cameras, motion detectors, and other high tech instruments, through a fourth fence, finally arriving at a warehouse full of nuclear weapons-grade highly enriched uranium, they had one purpose in mind—to expose a scandal at the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Since that action, on July 28, 2012, many have interpreted their action through that exact lens—the lens of scandal. In Congress and in the media the focus was on the stupendous failure of security personnel and technology to detect and constrain the peace activists. It was understandable enough—the Transform Now Plowshares action represented an unprecedented, devastating security breach—had they been terrorists, armed with explosive devices, and had they turned left into the warren of buildings where thermonuclear weapon cores are manufactured at Y12, they could have wreaked almost unimaginable havoc, destroyed US nuclear capability, released highly toxic materials into the environment, or maybe even made off with nuclear weapons grade uranium.
Investigations were launched, personnel were fired or transferred, Congress held hearings—eventually the failure was a central factor in the decision to award the $22 billion management contract for Y12 to a new contractor. The security breach was meaty stuff, a lovely scandal.
Eighteen months later, eyes turn again to Megan, Michael and Greg, and media attention focuses on the judge who is preparing to sentence them; denied any chance to explain their actions by the judge, convicted of sabotage charges by an East Tennessee jury, they trio face lengthy prison sentences, ranging from six to ten years.
It’s a different scandal now: Will this judge send an eighty-four year old nun to prison for sabotage for six years, as likely as not a life sentence? Will reason and truth be turned on its head by punishing this nun, who greeted the first guard to confront them with widespread arms and a deep bow; who declared, “We came in hope;” who offered to break bread with the security forces—will this woman be sentenced for a crime of violence, as the sabotage charge is, by statutory definition?
But from the beginning, and now at the end, most people miss the real scandal, the one that is too big to mention—the one the judge forbade the defendants from mentioning at trial: the ongoing production of weapons of mass destruction by the government of the United States of America in direct contradiction of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty which is, according to the United States Constitution, the Supreme Law of the Land (you can look it up: Article 6).
At the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge, workers make thermonuclear cores for the W76 warhead as part of the Stockpile Life Extension Program. More than forty years ago, the United States promised the world in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (we were one of the first signatories to the treaty) that we would “pursue in good faith negotiations leading to the cessation of the arms race at an early date.” The US State Department points to the permanent arms control talks with Russia as proof that we are adhering to the letter of the Treaty. But the rest of the world, who agreed to forego their own nuclear weapons programs once they had our promise to disarm, doesn’t agree with the State Department’s self-serving, “truth-on-its-head” rationalization. And the International Court of Justice in 1996 ruled unanimously that nuclear weapons states have an obligation to achieve disarmament, not just talk about it, not just reduce stockpiles in tiny increments while maintaining arsenals of thousands of warheads.
But the scandal is bigger than that. Because the US is also looking to build a new bomb plant at Y12 in Oak Ridge to replace aging facilities. The new bomb plant is called the Uranium Processing Facility; its price tag is $19 billion; its sole purpose is to produce nuclear weapons components. Since it was proposed in 2005, more than a billion dollars has been spent on a design which is in the process of being scrapped for the second time. It will be at least ten years behind schedule and will cost more than ten times its original estimated cost—which the contractors have admitted they low-balled.
This is the scandal at the heart of the Transform Now Plowshares action. In February, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark came to Knoxville to testify before the judge. He explained to the judge that the work at Y12 is unlawful; he described it as a criminal enterprise. He declared the Nonproliferation Treaty was the single most important treaty ever signed by the United States. “But we put it on the shelf,” he said. He was Attorney General when the Treaty was signed. The judge heard him out, pointedly refused to understand when Clark noted, more than once, that his argument was not that nuclear weapon production at Y12 violates international law, but it violate our own law, the nonproliferation treaty.
The truth is in the statement Michael, Greg and Megan carried into Y12 with them that July night:
“WHEREAS, The U.S. government is obligated as well by the Non Proliferation Treaty, in force since 1970 that requires the signers to pursue negotiations in good faith and to eliminate nuclear weapons at an early date. The U.S. government is also obligated by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits full-scale nuclear explosions.
THEREFORE, The work planned at Oak Ridge violates all these agreements and is thus criminal.
Oak Ridge Y-12 is slated to receive more than $6.5 billion in federal funding over the next decade for continuing nuclear weapons production. The new Uranium Processing Facility is expected to sustain a nuclear arsenal of 3000-3500 weapons beyond the middle of the century. Additional production facilities are sought as well. Instead of eliminating nuclear weaponry, Oak Ridge Y-12 perpetuates it through the nuclear modernization program.
Against these continuing violations of treaty law, we assert our human right to civil resistance.”
This scandal was too big for the court to handle—it ruled the defense could not raise any of these issues in the courtroom. It ruled Ramsey Clark could not speak at the trial. The Assistant US District Attorney, Jeff Theodore, smeared Ramsey Clark in his arguments at the sentencing hearing, and when defense counsel Francis Lloyd rose to defend Clark’s honor for the record, the judge waved him off, “Oh, I don’t think he said that,” said the judge, knowing full well that was precisely what Theodore said.
But Ramsey Clark’s truth is too scandalous for the courtroom.
The Transform Now Plowshares three, who see life through a different lens than most people, would be familiar with this kind of scandal—they would know the New Testament passages that describe the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth as a scandal. The very idea that humans should govern their lives, make decisions, take actions based on compassion and charity was a scandal; the idea that people should recognize a first authority above all others, a devotion to God their creator was a scandal to the governments of their day.
No less so today—most of our culture, including most of the scandal-of-the-day media, is driven by other priorities; we pursue a way of life that is highly consumptive; we seek to relieve ourselves of discomforts with little attention to the cost to others; and, as President George W. Bush so famously noted in defending his decision to invade Iraq, we are willing to wage war to protect our way of life. When he said it, nine out of ten Americans saluted the flags in their yards or flapping themselves to shreds from plastic mini-poles on their cars. This stands in sharp contrast to the lives of the extraordinary Plowshares activists who are motivated solely and at great risk to themselves, by the imperative of the Prince of Peace.
Plowshares Please, Isaiah was one message painted on the side of the bomb warehouse in Oak Ridge. It was a shout out to the prophet, to the message he delivered: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks; nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they study war any more.”
One need not embrace the Old Testament prophets or the Christian faith to appreciate the dedication of Greg, Michael and Megan to this mission—the prophet puts into words a universal aspiration of all people for peace and security. The scandal is not in the hope; it’s fine to hope for peace. The scandal is in the prophet’s use of active verbs—this will happen, he says.
This is the scandal in a nation that expends hundreds of billions of dollars on war , warriors and war preparations each year. An economy so heavily dependent on Pentagon spending can scarce contemplate the transformation inherent in the prophecy. To preach it today, to even take steps to pursue it, to put flesh on the dream—a scandal, to be sure.
But not the ultimate scandal—the ultimate scandal is the arrogance of those who risk all creation with weapons of mass destruction, who preach nonproliferation and threaten other nations for nuclear ambitions but who invest hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons and production infrastructure, who falsely promise to pursue disarmament while making plans to maintain an massive, active, deployed on hair trigger alert nuclear stockpile into the indefinite future, into the next generation and, as then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said in an unguarded moment, “for subsequent generations.”
Anyone want to tackle the real scandal?