By Steve Baggarly
[This was written by Steve in the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, while serving an eight month sentence for trespassing during a July 2010 protest at the Y-12 nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It is reprinted from the August 2011 issue of the Catholic Agitator, newsletter of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.]
Last night as I prepared to turn in, at the foot of my upper bunk, a young Aryan Nation member began to pummel my neighbor’s face. All I could do was lean over the edge of my bunk, shout, “Hey, hey, hey!” and stick my hand between them momentarily as David punched Everett on past my bunk towards the next. Somehow the guards burst in and, yelling, stopped the beating almost as quickly as it began. It seems Everett had just been outed as a pimp of under-aged girls and David, who was abused as a child, fashioned himself an avenging angel.
The blood splattered on the floor around my bunk reminded me how easily dismissed is Jesus’ nonviolent way in favor of the seeming efficacy of violence. A deeply held faith in violence as necessity pervades not only jail culture, but the nation as well. Indeed, the Y-12 nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee is an icon of our national commitment to use brute force — heat, blast and radiation — against human flesh. Part of the World War II Manhattan Project, Oak Ridge enriched the uranium used in the first atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, August 6, 1945.
A six-year-old boy remembers the result of Y-12’s handiwork: “Near the bridge there were a whole lot of dead people. There were some who were burned black and died, and there were others with huge burns who died with their skins bursting, and some others who died all stuck full of broken glass ... the details and the scenes were just like Hell.”
Richard Rhodes, in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, writes: “People exposed within a half mile of [ground zero] were seared to bundles of smoking black char in a fraction of a second as their internal organs boiled away ... the small black bundles now stuck to the streets and bridges and sidewalks of Hiroshima numbered in the thousands.”
Y-12 provides the enriched uranium that is in every warhead in today’s U.S. nuclear arsenal. The Hiroshima bomb killed 100,000 people instantly and another 100,000 over the next few months. Today’s 2,150 operational U.S. warheads can yield over 55,000 times the explosive power of that first bomb. Hundreds more warheads are kept in reserve and can be deployed in a relatively short amount of time. For 35 more years, Y-12 will work to modernize every warhead in the stockpile, increasing the explosive power of many, and ensuring their functionality for up to 100 years. All three atomic bomb manufacturing sites, including Oak Ridge, are in line for new multi-billion dollar facilities which will increase production capacity eightfold.
Nuclear weapons remain the cornerstone of the U.S. empire; there seems no reason to believe that when it is the empire’s turn to fall, or if its nationhood is ever threatened, that it will not launch them. The Obama Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review still rejects a no-first-use policy and continues nuclear strike planning against non-nuclear adversaries. Indeed, whenever a Defense Department or State Department representative insists that in dealing with an adversarial nation that “all options remain on the table,” they are threatening nuclear holocaust. From the foot of my bunk to the nuclear armed Trident submarines roaming the oceans, H. Rap Brown’s insight still holds, that “Violence is as American as apple pie.”
If nuclear weapons are the imperial cornerstone, war is the foundation. The United States is the only nation that currently attacks or invades other nations. Every other military conflict is within national borders, while the U.S. is at war in or occupying Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Libya. U.S. special operations forces track down and kidnap or assassinate suspected terrorists around the world. The U.S. floods the planet with weapons and military training, intelligence, and technology, stoking current wars and sowing the seeds of future wars. The country itself is one vast armaments industry and military base, with over 150,000 military contractors or subcontractors in every city, town, and hamlet, and over 6000 military installations. On top of that, there are over 700 U.S. bases overseas.
The economic benefits of empire seduce the citizenry into believing ourselves peace-loving people, with a unique respect for life, and allow us to maintain history’s most lethal professional military that keeps the blood from staining our own knuckles.
In opposition to all of this stands the Kingdom of God. John the Baptist, then Jesus, followed by the disciples, all carried the same message, “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” The Kingdom of God means, “the end of domination of person over person, it is a kingdom in contradiction to the established powers and on behalf of humanity” (W. Pannenberg). The Kingdom means no more violence and no more poverty. It means disarmament and the redistribution of wealth. In short, it means interhuman justice, and thus is hope for impoverished, starved, bombed, and victimized people everywhere.
Last night, David was taken away in handcuffs, shouting in triumph as he headed to the “hole.” Everett left to get 14 stitches on his face and to go to protective custody. In Oak Ridge, the centrifuges keep spinning, enriching uranium to weapons grade. But, if the scriptures tell us anything, it is that one day the now sporadic Kingdom of God will arrive in full. In the meantime, rather than rely on brute force, Jesus invites followers to put away the sword and take up the cross, to nonviolently put our hands to the Kingdom task of pulling down the mighty and raising up the lowly, to give our all in the struggle for justice and peace.