The Echo 9 launching facility for the intercontinental nuclear missile Minuteman III is about 100 miles northwest of Bismarck, North Dakota. Endless fields of sunflowers and mown hay dazzle those who travel there.
The fenced off site at first appears innocent. Until you get close you cannot see the sign that says deadly force is authorized against trespassers. A 40-ton nuclear missile lies coiled beneath the surface of a bland concrete bunker. Echo 9 is but 50 feet from a gravel road. This one Minuteman III missile has over 20 times the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
After you realize what a launching facility looks like, you can see that the pastoral countryside is full of nuclear weapon silos. One nuclear weapon launching site lies just across the road from a big country farmhouse, another just down from a camp for teens. There are 150 other such nuclear launching facilities in North Dakota alone.
Sunflowers, farmhouses, teen camps and nuclear weapons -- who would have thought the power to destroy the world many times over could fit in so well? The people of this state will not need to turn on CNN to know when the nuclear holocaust arrives.
On the morning of June 20, 2006, three people dressed as clown arrived at Echo 9. The clowns broke the lock off the fence and put up peace banners and posters. One said: “Swords into plowshares -- Spears into pruning hooks.” Then they poured some of their own blood and hammered on the nuclear launching facility.
Fr. Carl Kabat, 72, along with Greg Boertje-Obed, 52, and Michael Walli, 57, were the people dressed as clowns. Carl Kabat is a catholic priest. Greg is an ex-military officer, married and the father of an 11-year-old daughter. Mike is a Vietnam vet who has worked with the homeless for decades. Greg and Carl are members of the Loaves and Fishes Community in Duluth. The three are called the Weapons of Mass Destruction Here Plowshares.
They placed a copy of the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, international legal condemnations of nuclear weapons, bibles, rosaries, bread, wine, and a picture of Greg’s daughter on the top of the missile silo.
Then they waited until the air force security forces came and arrested them. They were charged with felony damage to government property and were kept in North Dakota jails until their trial in September.
In their trial they planned to argue to the jury that because the Minuteman III is a weapon of mass destruction it is illegal under international law. They hoped to share with the jury testimony from the Mayor of Hiroshima about the effects of nuclear weapons. They asked to have Professor Francis Boyle testify about the illegality of nuclear weapons. And they planned to introduce the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice outlawing nuclear weapons.
They hoped to put on evidence that warheads launched from the Minuteman III missile silo can reach any destination within 6000 miles in 35 minutes. The nuclear bomb launched from a Minuteman silo produces uncontrollable radiation, massive heat and a blast capable of vaporizing and leveling everything within miles. Outside the immediate area of the blast, widespread heat, firestorms and neutron and gamma rays are intended to kill, severely wound and poison every living thing and cause long-term damage to the environment.
But the judge ruled the jury was not permitted to hear this evidence.
The night before the trial, the peace community of North Dakota, along with friends and supporters from across the US shared a Festival of Hope potluck supper, songs, prayers and calls for peace at a local Unitarian church. The North Dakota peace community was very supportive. Even the federal prosecutor and an air force investigator joined the festival after being invited to attend by Carl, Greg and Mike. They too were welcomed by the community.
On the day of the trial, the judge asked people about their backgrounds and their opinions about nuclear weapons. Those who expressed any skepticism about the use of nuclear weapons were struck from serving on the jury by the government. Likewise, a Baptist missionary with a dove on her collar and all the Catholics were excluded.
Fr. Carl Kabat represented himself in the trial and gave his own opening statement. Dressed in a rumpled roman collar, black jeans and white tennis shoes, it was apparent he came right out of jail to the courtroom.
Fr. Kabat told the jury that he had been a priest for 47 years and spent three years in the Philippines and several more in Brazil were he witnessed poverty and hunger on a scale unimaginable to the US. After that, he said, he was ruined to life in the United States. He could not allow 40,000 children a day to die from malnourishment while our country built and maintained thousands of nuclear weapons.
Carl admitted that he had spent over sixteen years in prison for protesting against nuclear weapons. He told the jury that he understood that because he was 72 he might die in jail in punishment for this protest. “I don’t know if I am doing the right thing or not, I am only doing the best I can. If anyone can think of anything better to do to stop this insanity -- then, by all means, do it! It is up to all of us to do something to stop this madness!”
He said they dressed up as clowns as “fools for Christ,” and because “court jesters were often the only ones who could tell the truth to the king and not be killed for it!” We realize most people do not care about nuclear weapons. “To them we are nutballs,” he said. “We are doing the best we can to stand up against these evils. My feeling is do what you can do about injustice, then sing and dance!”
Fr. Carl pointed out in some detail that nuclear weapons violated international laws. “Now I am not a lawyer,” he kept saying, “but I know the International Court of Justice has ruled these are illegal.”
He asked the jury, “Why do you think it is it illegal for North Korea or Iran to have nuclear weapons when we have thousands? I don’t want anyone to have them. The weapon at Echo 9 can kill the entire population of New York City -- just that one missile and we have thousands of them! This is insane! Polls say that 87% of the people in the US want us to get rid of nuclear weapons – let’s do it! People may think we’re nuts for dressing up as clowns and risking jail to get rid of these weapons, but it is these weapons that are actually insane!”
Greg Boertje-Obed spoke briefly to the jury about growing up in the Midwest and the south. He was dressed in rumpled pants and a t-shirt decorated with the symbol of a local Native American tribe. He told them that he was married and the father of a young daughter. He admitted he basically did not know anything about nuclear weapons or civil rights. He joined ROTC to be able to attend college and was made an officer. His military group discussed nuclear war and one made a powerful case for first-strike. All the time he was a churchgoer. In graduate school he started awakening to the contrast between the religious values he found in church and the actions and priorities around him. Greg told the jurors of his journey into resistance as he realized that nuclear weapons were both illegal and immoral. Michael was described to the jury as one of 14 children who grew up in the Midwest. He joined the Army and spent two tours in Vietnam. After a religious conversion, he began a life of voluntary poverty and assisting the homeless and sick. The prosecutor called an FBI agent who told the jury all about the events of June 20, 2006. He described the defendants as polite at all times. The prosecution projected huge photos of the three dressed as clowns, pictures of the Echo 9 launching facility, and pictures of the items left behind on the wall of the courtroom.
Fr. Carl asked the FBI agent if he had found a statement that the three left on site. The judge allowed Carl to read the statement into the record at this time. Carl put on his reading glasses and in a loud voice read to the courtroom:
“Please pardon the fracture of the good order. When we were children we thought as children and spoke as children. But now we are adults and there comes a time when we must speak out and say that the good order is not so good, and never really was. We know that throughout history there have been innumerable war crimes. Two of the most terrible war crimes occurred on August 6th and 9th, 1945. On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, killing more than 100,000 people (including U.S. prisoners of war). Three days later the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, Japan, killing more than 50,000 people. Use of these weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations were abominable crimes against humanity. “The U.S. has never repented of these atrocities. On the contrary, the U.S. has deepened and expanded its commitment to nuclear weapons. The U.S. built a large nuclear-industrial complex which has caused the deaths of many workers and has resulted in killing many more people by nuclear testing. Our country built thousands of nuclear weapons and has dispersed weapons-grade uranium to 43 nations. Each Minuteman III missile carries a bomb that is 27 times more powerful than those dropped on the Japanese people. The building of these weapons signifies that our hearts have assented to mass murder. Currently the U.S. is seeking to research a new class of smaller nuclear weapons -- demonstrating its desire to find new uses for weapons of mass destruction.”
The prosecution then called a succession of young Air Force folks, who served as security for the Minuteman missiles in the silos in this area, to briefly describe the arrest and detention of Carl, Greg and Mike. Each one said the clowns were cooperative, non-violent and peaceful.
At the conclusion of the first soldier’s testimony, Fr. Kabat asked him, “Do you know what was in the ground at Echo-9?” The flustered airman said, “No, sir, I do not.” “You don’t know what is in the ground there?” Fr. Kabat asked again incredulously. “No sir,” repeated the helicopter airman. The courtroom was stunned.
For the next half-hour, every one of the rest of the young Air Force people called as witnesses by the government either said they did not know what was in the ground, or refused to answer Fr. Carl, saying “that is not my area of expertise, sir.”
Not one single soldier acknowledged that they were guarding nuclear weapons!
The final prosecution witness was a Lieutenant Colonel who said the damage to the site was over $15,000 because a spin dial lock on a hatch was damaged and had to be exchanged for another.
The Lt. Colonel, after initially refusing to do so, admitted that a Minuteman III missile was in the silo but that the Department of Defense would not allow him to say anything more.
After the prosecution rested, the judge ushered the jury out of the room. Then the three were allowed to introduce into the record the evidence of the International Court of Justice decision about the illegality of nuclear weapons, the testimony of the mayor of Hiroshima, and two statements by Professor Boyle about international law and its condemnation of nuclear weapons. The judge was asked to dismiss the case because of this evidence. When the judge declined, Greg told the judge that he was making a mistake. The judge responded that in light of all the other federal cases he had reviewed he was not making a mistake. “But in the judgment of history, you are,” Greg responded. The judge noted Greg’s objection for the record and re-started the trial.
With all the rest of their evidence excluded, the three defendants tried in their own words to tell the jury about how international law condemned nuclear weapons, what kind of damage the weapons caused, and how the very existence of nuclear weapons was robbing the poor of the world of much needed resources. Fr. Carl choked up several times talking to the jury when he described the extent of hunger and starvation he had witnessed. “Nuclear weapons,” he said softly, “and hungry children, are the two greatest evils in our world.”
Michael told the jury how he joined the army at the suggestion of a family member and ended up spending years in Vietnam. While there he heard about the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., described on the base as “an agitator.” He described his later work with the poor and how it was consistent with his peace work. He concluded by correcting the record. “These young military people testified that after we arrived at Echo -- 9 it became a crime scene. But in truth, Echo 9 was a crime scene long before we ever got there. Nuclear weapons are war crimes that are designed to kill innocent civilians. They are outlawed by international law and by God’s law. This was a crime scene long before we got there, and is still a crime scene today.”
Greg showed the jury the picture of his daughter. “I brought this to Echo 9 as a symbol of why we again and again try to disarm nuclear weapons. We do this for the children.”
With the evidence finished, it was time for the jury to decide. The judge would give instructions to the jury about how to decide the case.
The defense asked for two instructions about justice -- one from the preamble to the US Constitution another from Judge Learned Hand -- both were denied by the judge.
Defendants asked that the jury be read the First Amendment -- denied.
International law? Denied.
Nuremberg Principles? Denied.
The US statute defining war crimes? Denied.
The US statute defining genocide? Denied.
The judge then went forward and instructed the jury to disregard anything about nuclear weapons, international law, and the good motives of the defendants. The effect of these instructions was to treat the actions of the defendants the same as if they had poured blood and hammered on a Volkswagen -- pure property damage.
Limited like this, the jury came back with felony guilty verdicts for all three defendants. As they filed out, Fr. Carl called out to them, “Thank you brothers and sisters!”
One of the jurors told people afterwards that many on the jury learned a lot in the trial and were sympathetic to the defense, but “the judge’s instructions left us no option but to find them guilty.” As she walked away, the juror waved to supporters and yelled “Peace!”
The local paper reported one lawyer concluding that, despite their convictions, “History will have different judgment on their actions.”
The three remain in jail. They are in good spirits and at peace in the justice of their convictions. Greg pointed out that juries in Europe were allowed to learn about international law when evaluating the actions of peace protestors. “Why do English, Scottish, and Irish juries get to know about international law, but not US juries? Why do our judges keep our juries deaf and blind to the law of the world?”
Mike noted “The ungodly will always say ‘Let our might be our norm of justice.’”
Fr. Carl, who feels “fantastic -- as usual,” said, “One with God is a majority, and some day the will of the majority will triumph!”
For their convictions, they face sentences of up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 each. They will remain in jail in North Dakota until their sentencing date of December 4, 2006.
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. Bill and Dan Gregor assisted the defendants in this matter. You can reach Bill at: Quigley@loyno.edu.
* For more information about the men contact the Loaves and Fishes Community in Duluth at (218) 728-0629 or Nukewatch at (715) 472-4185. Copies of some pleadings in the case, pictures and updates from the men are posted on the Jonah House website: www.jonahhouse.org.
Other Articles by Bill Quigley
Trying to Make
It Home: New Orleans One Year After Katrina