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Quaint Plowshares disturb business as usual

In a post-Cold War age when protesting against nuclear weapons may seem archaic, indeed mad, the six Prince of Peace Plowshares defendants awaiting sentencing in Portland, Maine, are entitled to more than the usual rumination and head-scratching.

We could step back from the case itself and consider the nuclear weapons situation and arguments for military preparedness and the awesome sums demanded for such preparedness.

Nuclear weaponry has not gone away; it has been refined. The United States is doing most of the refining. The Aegis class destroyer USS The Sullivans has missiles as prepared to carry nuclear-tipped darts that can kill millions as they are to carry conventional warheads that can kill hundreds and thousands.

Under what circumstances in the world today has the United States need for a growing fleet of new ships with launchers that in one single burst of firepower can kill hundreds and thousands? And keep on killing hundreds and thousands with each succeeding burst?

Is there a little madness here?

It is almost embarrassing to pose the question of the need to kill millions. It is almost, well, crazy to consider the question.

The Department of Defense wants to be able to fight two regional wars simultaneously. That's its idea of preparedness. To this end, Congress -- our elected officials, that is -- gives the Pentagon $9,000 a second. Is that crazy or what? That is $700 million dollars a day.

Enter six people from that sometimes roving, sometimes rooted band of Christians with a combined monetary worth probably somewhere between zero and nothing. We've lived with, known, grown up with, loved, been dismayed by, had our conscience pricked by these people. Lay mendicants -- and a handful of priests, too -- who live on behalf of the poor. Who proclaim and protest for peace. Like mad.

That makes them charmingly eccentric and wildly Christian in an austere, single-minded way. In protesting for peace, they knock destroyers and airplanes on their nuclear noggins with household hammers. And that makes the Plowshares dangerous, too. Dangerous to whom? The state says they are dangerous enough to be put away.

Without them, the U.S. government does not have to defend its case for nuclear weapons refinement to anyone. The military power buildup barrels ahead, sucking up dollars for dead products -- that is, with no beneficial economic multiplier effect. These military dollars are paid to artificially supported industries -- the military-industrial complex is still with us and closer to the government than ever in its downsized, merged-up modern manifestation. These are dollars that might otherwise be spent on education, health and housing: $9,000 a second, $700 million a day.

So the federal government took the Portland, Maine, case away from the state and tried it as a federal offense on federal "conspiracy" charges.

"Go away, Plowshares," say those inside the columned buildings in Washington. "You're mad for doing this," echo the voices from the military-industrial corporate suites.

In the final analysis, in this crazy world, we are left to choose our madness.

Trappist Fr. Thomas Merton wrote that, should the nuclear trigger ever get pulled, it would be as an act of sanity, of a state well-ordered, performed by an obedient citizen, not a madman.

Nuclear protesters are always upsetting, but especially so now when their antics are supposed to be unnecessary and outdated. They are, sadly, relevant as ever, as maddening and relentless and culturally topsy-turvy as the gospel itself.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 1997