Saturday, May 07, 2016

246.9 - RIP: Dan Berrigan

RIP: Dan Berrigan

We end this week with an RIP. I have on several past occasions introduced one of these with some form of the phrase "another part of my youth slips away." So it is here, but this one is different, because it's not a part of my cultural youth, it's a part of for lack of a better term my spirit.

Dan Berrigan - teacher, author of more than 50 books of poetry and essays - Dan Berrigan - playwright, protestor, prisoner, and prophet - died on April 30, nine days short of his 95th birthday. The cause of death was heart failure after a lengthy illness.

Berrigan - more formally Father Daniel Berrigan, as he was a Jesuit priest - was at one time one of the best-known and most controversial figures on the American political scene and a figure whose grace and courage were a major inspiration to me as during the latter 1960s my eyes were opened and my political beliefs were turned radical by the Indochina War along with the words of humanity, insight, and truth from, among others, Dan Berrigan.

Even though his activism against poverty and other wrongs both predates and postdates it, Dan Berrigan first came to widespread public awareness through his opposition to the war that radicalized so many of my generation. With Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, he helped found Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. With his younger brother Phil, another Catholic priest who later left the priesthood to get married, he founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

Fr. Daniel Berrigan
But he really came to public attention on May 17, 1968, when he, Phil, and seven others took over 300 draft files out of the Catonsville, Maryland draft board office, brought them to the parking lot, and burned them with homemade napalm, created for the occasion based on a recipe in a Green Beret handbook.

He turned the record of the ensuing trial into a play which became a movie, both called, appropriately, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, the text for which consisted mostly of trial transcripts.

It included this line which has forever since echoed across my conscience. Quoting himself, Dan wrote
Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.
One historian called the Catonsville action "the single most powerful anti-war act in American history."  It lead to more than 100 similar raids on draft board, throwing a huge monkey wrench into the machine grinding out cannon fodder for an increasingly-unpopular war.

The nine were of course convicted - but when appeals ran out in 1970, Dan surprised everyone by refusing to report to federal prison. He went underground, from safe house to safe house, and spent four months dodging the FBI. During that time, he gave interviews and even a couple of speeches - he was, in the words of Phil Berrigan's wife Liz McAllister, "available to everyone except the FBI." This was so embarrassing to J. Edgar Hoover's FBI that Dan became the first priest ever to be on the agency's 10 Most Wanted list.

Ultimately, of course, he was caught as he knew he eventually would be. His hosts and guides made a mistake and he was arrested on Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island, the "Island" in "Block Island" being the mistake. He then spent two years in prison.

That, however, was far from the end of his story. On September 9, 1980, Dan, with seven other people, again including his brother Phil, walked into a GE plant in the town of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, right past startled security guards, and started hammering on nose cones being fashioned for the MK (or "Mark") 12A, a highly-advanced, precision-targeted, nuclear weapon. They were trying symbolically to "hammer swords into plowshares," thus giving rise to the name the Plowshares Movement. Again, it inspired and in fact continues to inspire similar actions of what came to be known as "direct disarmament." But in the short term, it meant more prison time for Dan and others.

He never retreated from his radicalism, his pacifism, his nonviolence, or his activism. He continued to speak, write, and march. His last arrest for civil disobedience, as far as I know, was in 2006 at the age of 85.

I never met Dan Berrigan. I would have liked to but the chance never arose; the closest I came was being in the same room and that was partly of my doing. Every year, the War Resisters League had a Peace Dinner during which they gave a peace award to someone. It always had a very wonderfully nonviolent-lefty-activist vibe: no fancy meal on linen tablecloths with embroidered cloth napkins in front of a raised dais, it was a large-scale pot-luck, usually at a church hall somewhere in lower Manhattan.

In 1974, Dan had published an essay about the Middle East which was critical of Israel and if you think it can be hard to criticize Israel today because of the flak you get, those decades back it was much worse. The denunciations of him as everything from ignorant to pro-terrorist to antisemitic poured out of various voices, including a distressing number on the left. The word was he was feeling depressed and isolated by the reaction.

The Catonsville 9, May 17, 1968
The League had been planning on giving the award that year to Dave Dellinger, but the suggestion was made to switch it to Dan as encouragement and a display of solidarity. I was at the time on the Executive Committee of the War Resisters League and was one of those who convinced the others to make the change.

(Parenthetically, it developed that Dave Dellinger, when asked about it, enthusiastically endorsed the change.)

My other connection to Dan Berrigan, one even more tenuous, was during his time evading the FBI. The possibility was raised that my house was one of the ones he would stay in. It never got beyond the point of a possibility and I suspect there were in those months a lot more possibilities raised than were seriously pursued, but still it seemed pretty cool at the time. And still does, in fact.

Now, I didn't agree with Dan Berrigan on everything - for example, he was opposed to both euthanasia and abortion and I am strongly in favor of the right to both. And while I don't know what his feelings were on the matters, given his background and training I would not be surprised to find such disagreements over matters such as LGBTQ rights.

But despite those disagreements and despite not having met him, I did encounter his writings and more importantly his actions, which taken together became one of the things that helped to form and to inform the person I have become.

Because I've talked here about how I'm a green, a leftist, a radical, a democratic socialist, and such. But there is something I haven't talked about much that also informs my opinions and analyses: I am a pacifist.

Which usually is something you say on TV when you want to lose viewers. But it's true and, thanks in part to, among others, Dan Berrigan, it's part of who I am.

I am not going to inflict my autobiography on you; if you want to know how I shifted from what would these days be called a "liberal warhawk" to where I've wound up, ask. For the moment, I'll just say that my experience of actual - not movie, not cartoon, not play, but actual - violence and seeing its effects and seeing how people responded to it provoked my conscience to an utter clarity of "this cannot be right." That large-scale organized violence cannot be right.

And no, I'm not interested in any cliche tsk-tsking and tut-tutting about how "unrealistic" I'm being, nor do I need any lectures on the destructiveness of institutional violence, nor do I need to be reminded that it's easy for those of us not suffering under the yoke of an oppressor to urge the oppressed to foreswear murderous violence, especially when it is equally easy for us to romanticize such violence, to embrace it as "necessary" or "liberating" when we do not have to live with blood and gore and shredded limbs and the shrieks of the wounded, writhing in pain, and the wails of the widows and the widowers and the orphans and the cries of the parents holding their dead children while sitting among the smoking ruins of what had been their homes and fields.

Because that is the reality hidden behind the "necessity" of violence, a reality of tens - of hundreds - of millions around the world, past and present, abused by military power of one sort or another, almost if not always in the name of some supposed "higher purpose." A reality of the real effect of real violence on real people.

Wars and armed conflicts of one sort or another are now going on in Nigeria, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and who knows how many other places, and in every one of them you can be damn sure that no one on any side has picked up a gun or dropped a bomb or fired a rocket or laid a mine or set a booby-trap without claiming to be on the side of the angels; no one has blown someone's head off or burned a village to the ground or tortured a prisoner without claiming it's in pursuit of "justice" or "freedom" or "self-defense" or the "glory of God" (or "Jesus" or "Allah" or whoever).

Peace and RIP, Dan Berrigan
That's the reality. Not musings about how you'd "prefer" nonviolence or about "self-defense" or, horribly, the "creative" aspects of violence. The reality, rather, of death, destruction, and despair in which everyone on every side claims that they are the wounded innocents and they had "no other choice."

But we refuse to see that reality, we ignore it, we repress it, even as despite that we know it. We repress it so far that we commit to its opposite, we commit to the notion that "security" outranks "justice" and that such security is found in being rough and tough rather than in being fair and just.

Dan Berrigan saw it and could not ignore it, could not repress it. Instead, he threw his life against it, fully embracing his own credo that "One is called to live nonviolently even if the change one works for seems impossible."

Because it is only by hammering on the impossible that it can be reformed first into the unlikely and then into the inevitable. Dan Berrigan has laid down his hammer. Let's hope that enough among us find the grace and courage to pick it up.

RIP, Dan Berrigan.

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