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Activist Died 'With Boots On'
Published on Sunday, December 15, 2002 by the Toronto Star
Activist Died 'With Boots On'
Philip Berrigan lit a fire under America's anti-war movement of the 1960s Dissident's burning faith was buttressed by deep human
by Rupert Cornwall

Had he been born in the old Soviet Union, Philip Berrigan would have vanished into the gulag or a psychiatric hospital.

He had every credential for the dissident's role: a burning faith in his own beliefs verging at times on zealotry, buttressed by a deep humanity and an immense courage that enabled him to defy governments and challenge the "don't-rock-the-boat" mindset of conventional public opinion.

Providence, however, decided that Berrigan would be a dissident in what he sometimes called "the American Empire."

As a young man, he was a promising athlete who played semi-professional baseball before deciding to go north to attend St. Michael's College in Toronto for a short time before being drafted.

In 1943, he went off to fight in the U.S. Army infantry, where he performed competently enough to earn a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant.

But within a decade of war's end, the fighting soldier — in his words "a highly skilled young killer, I thought then that's what patriots did" — had become a man totally committed to peace.

Ordained a Catholic priest in 1955, he went on to become a passionate and at times violent anti-war activist, first against the conflict in Vietnam and then against nuclear weapons.

On several occasions, his journey would take him to prison.

Along the way, he fell in love with Elizabeth McAlister, a nun with whom he exchanged marriage vows in letters smuggled to and from his cell.

When they officially married in 1973, they were both excommunicated.

Wryly, he would describe his condition as "a Catholic trying to be a Christian."

For the last 30 years of his life, Berrigan's base was Jonah House, a communal home for pacifists the couple set up in Baltimore.

There, he earned a modest living from writing, housepainting and lecturing about the causes to which he'd devoted himself.

Berrigan's convictions were fueled by the evils of segregation, which he had first witnessed in the treatment of black soldiers on the troop ship to Europe.

When he decided to become a priest, he joined the Josephite order, which is devoted to helping African Americans.

A seven-year stint in New Orleans, teaching theology at an all-black parish school, only increased his determination to root out "the poisonous tree" of racism.

By the late 1960s, Vietnam was casting an ever-darker shadow and Berrigan's views were sealed: Racism and war were strangling all that was good in America.

"Is it possible for us," he asked, "to be vicious, brutal and violent at home, and to be fair, judicious, beneficent and idealistic abroad?"

The priest became so troublesome that the Josephites ordered him to stop speaking out against injustice.

He refused, was transferred to parishes in New York state and then Baltimore — and changed his opposition from words to deeds.

His first act of protest came on Oct. 17, 1967, when he and three friends entered a public office in Baltimore and spattered Vietnam draft-board documents with a liquid made in part from their blood.

That offense ultimately earned him a six-year jail term.

Exactly seven months later — on May 17, 1968 — came the incident that turned Berrigan and his brother Daniel into national figures, when they and seven other activists set fire to hundreds of draft cards at Catonsville, Md., using a homemade napalm of gasoline mixed with soap.

The trial of the "Catonsville Nine" resulted in a 3 1/2-year jail term, which Berrigan was to serve concurrently with the Baltimore sentence.

The nine did not meekly go to prison, arguing that punishment for an action that had been right was itself wrong. Within a few days, Philip Berrigan was tracked down and captured.

America being America, he and Daniel, a priest who'd joined the Jesuit order in 1952, became celebrities, appearing on the cover of Time magazine while the glitziest writers queued up to profile them.

But, America also being a country less tolerant of dissent than its carefully burnished image would indicate, the Berrigans were widely vilified as communists and traitors.

Philip Berrigan was undeterred. In 1980, he was a co-founder of the Plowshares movement against nuclear weapons and the U.S.-Soviet arms race.

The organization signaled its arrival by breaking into a General Electric factory near Philadelphia.

His protests continued until the very end of his life. In 1999, he and three other activists broke into a U.S. National Guard air base near Baltimore to protest the use of depleted uranium, widely suspected of causing cancer, to strengthen anti-armor shells. He received a jail term that kept him behind bars until December, 2001.

"I'm going to fight all the way, and hopefully die with my boots on," he said. And on Dec. 6, at age 79, that's just what he did.

America is again on the brink of launching a war, this time against Iraq. In a final statement released to his friends and supporters a few days before his death, Berrigan warned of these "hair-trigger times, with well-manicured barbarians at the wheel and our nuclear strike force armed and ready."

The Independent; with files from the Los Angeles Times

Copyright 1996-2002. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited


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