WMDs in North Dakota

On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, the U.S. dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki. These nuclear weapons killed over 100,000 people, almost all civilians, and injured many tens of thousands more.

Father Carl Kabat, 72, Greg Boertje-Obed, 51, and Michael Walli, 57, sit in jail in North Dakota awaiting a federal criminal trial because of weapons of mass destruction and because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I visited them last week.

Their crime? They tried to disarm one of the 1,700-plus nuclear weapons in North Dakota. On June 26, 2006, they went to the silo of a Minuteman III first-strike nuclear missile and wrote on it, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Then they hammered on its lock and poured some of their own blood over it. They waited to be arrested and have been in jail ever since. If convicted, they face imprisonment of up to 10 years for criminal damage to federal property.

The Minuteman III is a first-strike intercontinental nuclear missile with a range of over 6,000 miles and carries 27 times the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. There are over 150 Minuteman III missiles planted in the ground in silos in just the northern part of North Dakota.

Father Kabat has been a Catholic priest for over 40 years. Boertje-Obed was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Walli served two tours in Vietnam. All three men were born in small towns or rural areas of the Midwest. Walli and Boertje-Obed are members of the Loaves and Fishes Catholic Worker community in Duluth, Minn. Together they are called the “Weapons of Mass Destruction Here Plowshares.” The Plowshares movement seeks to follow the instructions of Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) to “beat your swords into plowshares.”

At the time of their arrest, the three specifically linked their actions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “Two of the most terrible war crimes occurred on August 6th and 9th, 1945. On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, killing more than 100,000 people (including U.S. prisoners of war). Three days later the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, Japan, killing more than 50,000 people. Use of these weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations were abominable crimes against humanity.”

They went on to say, “U.S. leaders speak about the dangers of other nations acquiring nuclear weapons, but they fail to act in accordance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which commits the U.S. to take steps to disarm its weapons of mass destruction. We act in order to bring attention to people’s responsibility for disarming weapons of state terrorism. We can begin the process of exposing U.S. weapons of mass destruction, naming them as abominations that cause desolation, and transforming them to objects that promote life.”

Mike Walli enlisted in the army as a young man. With the experience of two tours in Vietnam, he said, “This is not about our national defense. The hundreds of Minuteman III nuclear weapons are offensive weapons of mass destruction. Martin Luther King Jr. preached that the United States is the chief purveyor of violence in the world. We must become a people-oriented society rather than a thing-oriented society. We must kick the war economy habit.”

Boertje-Obed, who is the father of an 11-year-old daughter, told me, “There is a sense of righteousness and harmony that comes from being in jail on August 6. When I was in the military, I was trained to fight and ‘win’ a nuclear war. It became clear that all the preparations for a nuclear war were wrong. In contrast Jesus taught, ‘Love your enemies … those who live by the sword will die by the sword.’ Now is the time to turn away from the ways of violence.

“Treat others the way we want to be treated. Now is the time to take steps to help the starving, ill, orphaned, weak, war-oppressed and downtrodden all over the world. It is time to turn away from the bomb and the possibility of ending all life on our planet and to end the nuclear nightmare.”

Father Kabat reflected, “When these bombs were dropped on the Japanese I was too young to realize what had happened. Those bombings were war crimes that we, even today, do not acknowledge. The indiscriminate killing of children, women, old people and everyone else certainly cannot be accepted under any just theory of war.”

North Dakota is home to more nuclear weapons than any other of the 50 states. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists estimated that the state contained more than 1,700 nuclear warheads, not counting the ones in silos in the ground.

A friendly cab driver in Bismarck told me, “If North Dakota seceded from the Union, we would be the world’s third most-powerful nuclear state.”

The Weapons of Mass Destruction Here Plowshares hope their actions will invite the people of North Dakota, and the rest of the U.S., to do something about our nation’s nuclear weapons of mass destruction in light of many issues of justice, including the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Bill Quigley (quigley@loyno.edu) is a human rights lawyer and professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a legal adviser with the Weapons of Mass Destruction Here Plowshares. You can write Father Carl Kabat, Greg Boertje-Obed or Mike Walli c/o Southwest Multi-County Correctional Center, 66 Museum Drive, Dickinson ND 58601.