One of the many joys of growing old in the classroom is to hear students asking fundamental questions that the public chooses to neglect. I teach a course called “Social Problems”. It is the first time our undergraduates are expected to apply the sociology they have learned to make sense of what is going on around them. For some it is an intellectual exercise that begins to shake up their world as they understand it.
Recently we’ve been talking about the legacy of what Americans now call “the events of 9/11”. When two passenger jets crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, my students were six years old. They have grown up in the midst of two foreign wars along with limitations to freedom of speech and privacy deemed necessary to fend off terrorists. But even those who rarely travel outside their home state of North Carolina are baffled by the recent trial of three peace protesters.
Megan Rice, an 84-year-old nun, Michael Walli, in his sixties, and the youngster, Greg Boertje-Obed, who is in his late fifties, broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a facility described as the most secure nuclear facility in the US. On the night of 28 July 2012, they went undetected by ground sensors, surveillance cameras, canine patrols and professional guards authorised to shoot trespassers on sight.
After cutting through four fences, the three eventually stood 3m from the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, a giant building housing 400 tonnes of bomb-grade materials. If these people had been terrorists, they could have made the events of 9/11 seem minuscule by comparison. But they were not terrorists; they were long-time anti-nuclear peace protesters. Finally locating a lone guard, the three bowed to him, lit candles, sang hymns and read him their philosophical manifesto. When the dust cleared after their arrests, they faced accusations of “sabotage”. After a trial in May 2013 at which they were not allowed to present any evidence of their peace protests, concerns over the welfare of the human race in a nuclear world, or discussions of international law, they were found guilty.
The three were convicted of damaging a national defence premises under the Sabotage Act, which carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years, and of causing more than $1,000 of damage to US government property. The three admitted cutting fences and spray-painting peace slogans.
Sentencing was scheduled for this week.
Shocked by the case, one of my first-year students said: “That’s not right. They aren’t terrorists. They’re just peace protesters.” Another chimed in: “I can’t believe they are going to prison. All they are guilty of is expressing their opinions.”
Rice’s first action upon being imprisoned in Georgia while awaiting sentencing was to organise a yoga class for female inmates.
“Yoga?” asked one of my students. “Is Sister Megan really a terrorist?”
Unfortunately our other democratic institutions, including the print and electronic media, have paid little attention to the nun and her two accomplices.
As the classroom hour grew longer, the questions kept coming. How, the students asked, can our legal system confuse the singing of hymns by an elderly nun with the violent acts of a professional terrorist?
In spite of my years, I do not have answers to their questions.