Through the Prism of Nonviolence
By John Heid
Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2020
TUSCON, Arizona—May 9, 2020, the 99th anniversary of Dan Berrigan’s birth
A half century ago this month Daniel Berrigan, S.J., wrote America Is Hard to Find: Notes from the Underground and Letters from Danbury Prison, Doubleday & Co. 1972.
At the time he was underground. Dan and eight others—the Catonsville 9—had been convicted of multiple felonies for burning draft card files in resistance to the US War in Vietnam. He chose to continue his resistance by surreptitiously appearing at anti-war events rather than willingly submit to imprisonment. “On the lam” for four months, Dan spoke publicly, albeit clandestinely, and wrote ferociously. The times were as volatile as the fire. Dan, his brother, Phil and seven others burned hundreds of 1-A draft files. His reflections during this period offered an incisive lens into American culture. That lens, looked through 50 years later, is still acute, clarion.
Why is America still so hard to find? What is America anyway? Dan understood the symbiotic relationship between war and the state of our nation, any nation. He also recognized an antidote: resistance. People power.
War is antithetical to Civil Society. It blurs our visibility, let alone our humanity. What has changed in a half century? What hasn’t? Today we find ourselves in the grip of a microscopic virus that rivals the size of the split atom. Suddenly our world is turned upside down. It’s become a heyday for doomsday prophets, and profiteers, a free-for-all for conspiracy theorists. Rumor, prediction, and fact have become a sordid ménage à trois.
Meanwhile America and much of the world is “doing time” above ground, and staying at home—those who have one. Will the flippant quip “gone viral” ever sound the same? How can our war machine state save us from what we cannot even see without a microscope? Guns, let alone nuclear weapons, are rendered powerless.
An insight I gleaned from Dan’s youngest brother, Phil, was to pay attention to the larger context of any political moment. Phil said he learned this lesson during the Vietnam War, when most eyes were understandably focused on Southeast Asia. Behind the scene, the US stealthily built up its nuclear arsenal. Thus follows my query: what’s behind the Covid-19 curtain?
For one, the Tucson-based corporation Raytheon Missiles and Defense secured a multi-billion dollar contract to develop the next generation of air-launched and nuclear-armed missiles—at the height of the pandemic.
The coronavirus is unarguably a major health crisis. Still, in terms of casualties, it amounts to a dress rehearsal to nuclear war. There are ways to minimize the impact of the virus. There is no quarantine from nuclear weapons detonations, no safe space, not even deep in the high-tech bunker at Offutt Air Force Base. There will eventually be a vaccine for Covid-19. There is no cure for nuclear war, only prevention through abolition. The virus has become a partisan issue. Nuclear weapons have bipartisan support. In dystopian terms they are the great equalizer. No one is immune. No one gets out alive.
A pandemic allows us, or perhaps forces us, to recognize our vulnerability, our interdependence. Granted, those with more privilege suffer less in a pandemic. Not so with nuclear war. While our eyes are focused on a cure to resolve our current crisis, another is looming backstage. One might ask, Why isn’t the US government investing in a multi-billion dollar research for this pandemic rather than in so-called nuclear security?
There are many smoke screens, so much government subterfuge. Small wonder the heart of America is hard to find. There are war contractor coffers to fill. The heart of America is not underground in resistance. No, it’s at large, in plain sight. We are a nation of nuclear war deniers.
Following his imprisonment for the Catonsville 9 action, Dan Berrigan continued his strident resistance to the US militarism, particularly nuclearism, in the streets, in the dock, in jail cells. Nevermore underground. He took his life-long search for America to the grave, and by example urges us to carry on the struggle for disarmament—of ourselves, of fear, of nukes. Only then will we find the heart of America.
— John Heid is a humanitarian aid activist living in Tucson, Arizona