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Paying the Price

Mar 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 24 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Readers may recall The Scrapbook taking note of a fawning, seven-page, profusely illustrated story in the Washington Post by Dan Zak (May 13, 2013) about three antiwar activists on trial in Tennessee for invading and vandalizing the nuclear weapons research facility at Oak Ridge. The heroes seemed to come from central casting—“a belligerent drifter, aging ex-nun, and grizzled house painter”—and their prosecution was inevitably depicted in the Post as a David-and-Goliath affair pitting three lovable humanitarians against the brute force of the military-industrial complex. 

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Well, The Scrapbook is pleased to report that the jury in the federal district court subsequently found the trio guilty, and last week, the trial judge, the Hon. Amul Thapar, handed out sentences ranging between 35 and 62 months in prison, and ordered the defendants to pay $53,000 in restitution for damaging the security system and vandalizing the site. The prison sentences were shorter than the prosecution had requested; but The Scrapbook, for its part, is content with the course of justice. 

It should be said, at this juncture, that The Scrapbook (with some obvious exceptions) takes no particular pleasure in seeing people behind bars. And the judge, for his part, seemed to agonize between his duty to conscience and to federal sentencing guidelines, which, he explained, “do not distinguish saboteurs who truly mean harm from peace protesters who intend change. .  .  . If all that energy and passion,” he lamented, “was devoted to changing the laws, perhaps real change would have occurred by today.” 

Here The Scrapbook must respectfully dissent. Obviously, in America, citizens are free to disagree with government policy, to write, to speak out, to demonstrate publicly. But the fact that “activists” regard their targets as evil, and their own motives as pure, does not excuse them from the law. The moral power of civil disobedience lies not in committing criminal acts and getting away with them, but in committing criminal acts and paying a price. When Dan Zak and the Washington Post glorify favored dissenters—proclaiming, in effect, that they are above the law—they destroy their moral authority. What begins as an act of conscience becomes gaming the system.

Nor do we share Judge Thapar’s opinion that the so-called Prophets of Oak Ridge “intend change” without “truly [meaning] harm.” On the contrary, certain critics of American policy—such as these defendants, other vandals of federal property, even Edward Snowden—do intend change but also mean harm. Indeed, in some cases, their motive is not persuasion but subversion, a deliberate attempt to weaken, undermine, and sabotage America. Once again, such people are entitled to their opinions, and the press is free to exalt them. But in the history of our liberal democratic society, especially in the years since Pearl Harbor, it takes a special obtuseness—especially in the media—to find tyranny in the burden of securing the common defense. 

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