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Herb Rothschild Jr.: New Year resolutions

When I’m in the company of friends, I listen with interest to the details of their vacations and the lives of their offspring. But when they send me such information in year-end family newsletters, it seems flat. There’s more depth to our lives than the bare recitation of the facts about them typically reveal.

This month, however, I did get a year-end letter that interested me. It came from the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, from Prisoner 08052-016. That’s my old friend Greg Boertje-Obed. In his case the recitation of the facts reveal more about his life than he would reveal in person.

Greg is serving five years and two months for taking part in the nonviolent witness against nuclear weapons at the Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge on July 28, 2012. He, Sister Megan Rice, and Michael Walli chose that site because our government is planning a $19 billion uranium processing facility there to produce thermonuclear cores for new nuclear weapons.

This is not the first time that Greg has vacationed at taxpayer expense. Indeed, the last time I saw him was in 1985 at a prison in Rhode Island. He had climbed aboard a submarine docked at the naval base in Portsmouth and hammered on one of the tubes housing nuclear-tipped missiles.

Hammering swords into plowshares has been Greg’s vocation since he left Baton Rouge, where I was among those who helped him discern his calling, and moved to Jonah House in Baltimore. Jonah House was founded and guided by Phillip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister. They inspired, and sometimes participated in, Plowshares actions at numerous nuclear installations. After Berrigan died in 2002, Greg moved to the Catholic Worker House in Duluth, where he married and had children. He still lives there and works as a house painter when he isn’t incarcerated.

On Feb. 18 of this year, Sister Rice, Walli, and Greg appeared before a federal judge in Knoxville for sentencing. They were brought into the courtroom shackled hands to feet. Greg is 58, Walli is 64, and Rice is 84. Like Greg, Walli got 62 months jail time; Rice got 32 months.

Those who control our national security state are justified in treating such people as dangerous. What most obviously alarmed Washington was the ease with which they penetrated a high-security facility armed merely with wire snips. But the insecurities their action exposed run deeper. Why else would the government seek such long sentences, far longer than the judge meted out? Instead of charging them with trespassing and property damage — $53,000 was what the government claimed it cost to repair the holes they cut in the fences and to repaint the wall on which they poured blood — it tried them under the Sabotage Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.

The November election results guarantee at least two more years of barely restrained efforts to exploit our planet and dominate its people, both of which are increasingly pushing back against such abuse. Our real security is dwindling. The facts of our lives perforce will change.

I suggest that you and I seek security by taking risks. I suggest that we, too, become dangerous people by saying “no” to the morbidity of our national life. I especially commend this course of action to people like me who have no jobs to lose or dependents to care for. Let us bear our witness as openly as possible, and let the facts of our witness reveal the depths of our lives.

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.