What I Would Have Said To Judge Freedman
On Tuesday morning, December 3, 1991, U.S. federal marshals arrested me at our family’s home in Colrain [Massachusetts]. This marked the latest attempt by the U.S. government to take possession of our home in lieu of the federal income taxes my wife Betsy and I have withheld from the government for the past fourteen years due to our conscientious objection to war-making and weapons building. The marshals took me to the federal district court in Springfield where I was ordered to “show cause” as to why I should not be charged with contempt of a court order to vacate the premises. As I was waiting in a jail cell in the Federal Building prior to being brought before Judge Frank Freedman, I made a few mental notes to guide me in my statement to the court.
To my surprise, Judge Freedman refused to allow me to make a statement or in any way explain my actions. He said that all he wanted to know was whether I would promise the court that I would never return to our home, which he claimed was the property of the U.S. government. I said I couldn’t make that promise that my conscience would not allow me to surrender my home to pay for killing. The Judge immediately sentenced me to “up to six months” of incarceration for contempt of court. The following is an expanded version of the statement I had hoped to make.
Conscience Not Contempt
My refusal to give up our home is not an act of contempt or defiance of your court order. I regard it as an act of conscience and also an act of citizenship.The two go hand in hand. The first obligation of responsible citizenship, I believe, is obedience to one’s conscience. Obedience to one’s government, and to its laws, is very important, but it must come second. Otherwise there is no check on immoral actions by governments, which are bound to occur in any society, whenever power is abused.
I want to assure you, however, that I am not someone who treats the law lightly. Even when a particular law seems at first to have no clear purpose or justification, I try to give it — that is, give those who created and approved it — the benefit of the doubt. In an ideal sense, I see law as the codification of those rules and procedures by which the members or citizens of a community, be it local or global, have agreed to live. A decent respect for one’s community requires a decent respect for its laws. At their best, such laws express the conscience of the community, causing conscience and law to coincide.
The international treaties and agreements that Betsy and I cited in the legal documents recently submitted to, and rejected by, this court are wonderful examples of the coincidence of law and conscience. These agreements, each one signed by our government, include the United Nations Charter, which outlaws war and the use of military force as methods of resolving conflicts among nations; The Hague Regulations and Geneva Conventions, which prohibit the use, or threatened use, of weapons that indiscriminately kill civilians and poison the environment; and the Nuremberg Principles which forbid individual citizens from participating in or collaborating with clearly defined “crimes against humanity,” “war crimes,” and “crimes against peace,” even when refusal to participate or collaborate means disobeying the laws of one’s government.
These international accords — which, as you know, our Constitution requires us to regard as “The Supreme Law of the Land” — are at least as much affirmations of conscience, rooted in universal moral standards, as they are statements of law. Betsy and I regret that you chose to deny our request for a trial, which would have allowed us to argue the relevance of these international laws before a jury of our peers.
Even in the absence of such laws, however, I believe that citizens would still have an affirmative obligation to follow their conscience and refuse to engage in or support immoral acts by governments. It is not true, as is commonly thought, that if large numbers of people put conscience ahead of the law and decided for themselves which acts of government were immoral, civilized society would break down into violence and chaos — that is, greater violence and chaos than there is now. In fact, the opposite would likely occur. There would likely be greater compliance with those laws that are fundamentally just and reasonable — in other words, most laws — and there would be greater public pressure to abolish or reform those laws (and policies) which are unjust or unreasonable.
There would be unfortunate exceptions, of course. In the name of conscience certain individuals would, no doubt, do some terrible things and cause much injury and death, which happens now. On balance, however, the historical record is clear: from the Spanish Inquisition and the African slave trade, to Stalin’s purges, Hitler’s Holocaust, the genocide of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and our own devastation of Vietnam and Iraq, far more killing and suffering has resulted from people following “legal” orders and obeying the law than from people refusing to do so in obedience to conscience.
My own refusal to kill (which led me to spend nearly two years in federal prison rather than cooperate with the Vietnam draft), Betsy’s and my refusal to pay federal taxes used for killing (which caused the IRS to seize our home), and now our refusal to turn over our home in lieu of taxes — are all acts of conscience. It has not been easy for us to deliberately violate the law in these instances, and in so doing incur the anxiety and disapproval of some of our friends and family, as well as the scorn and censure of many members of the community. We are painfully aware that even though we do pay our town and state taxes, and even though we have given away to the poor and to the victims of our war-making in other countries every center that we have withheld from the federal government, nevertheless we are still regarded by some as irresponsible and not contributing our fair share.
There are times, however, when all of us are confronted with difficult choices. Betsy and I, and many others like us, feel that we choose between knowingly and willingly paying for war and killing, and openly and nonviolently breaking the law with respect to federal faxes. Our consciences compel us to choose the latter.
For me, the issue is larger than simply the taking of another human life, or even the instance of a particular war in which many lives are lost. I have increasingly come to see the larger issue as war itself. Whereas there has always been a moral imperative to end war and refrain from killing, today the imperative is much greater. Today the logic of peace, the logic of nonviolence, is also the logic of survival.
It is impossible to dis-invent today’s nuclear, chemical, biological, and so-called conventional weapons of mass destruction. Therefore we have no alternative but to effectively abolish war. This is the one essential adaptation which the human species must make — and, I firmly believe, can make — if life as we know it is to continue.
War today is the scourge of the planet. It is tragic enough that war is daily claiming the lives of thousands of people, maiming thousands more, leaving thousands of orphans and widows, and destroying thousands of schools, and hospitals — to say nothing of the irreplaceable treasures of human civilization destroyed in Baghdad last year and in Dubrovnik over the past several months. What makes war today even more tragic, more horrible, are the incalculable economic, social, and environmental costs that go along with it. Instead of using our human and material resources to produce food, medicine, housing, schools, and other desperately needed commodities, the world’s nations, led by our own, are annually spending trillions of dollars to produce or purchase more and more weapons of even greater destructive capability. The hundreds of millions of children, women, and men whose lives are ravaged by poverty, hunger, and homelessness — around the world and here is the U.S. — are as much victims of our addiction to war and militarism as those who are hit directly by the bullets and bombs.
While the awful gap between the rich minority and the poor majority of the world’s people grows wider and wider, war’s assault on the earth, which sustains us all, becomes more and more savage and less and less reversible with each new armed conflict. The severe and long-term ecological damage to the Persian Gulf region that resulted from only a few weeks of war last year is just the tip of the iceberg. The cumulative impact of the many smaller-scale, less publicized wars elsewhere around the globe is no less severe and ultimately, no less threatening to the well-being of people everywhere, including Americans. Furthermore, here at home where ecological damage to our own, more immediate environment is a proceeding at a frightening pace, the single largest polluter by far, producing more toxic and radioactive waste than any other single entity, is the U.S. military.
I am not at all suggesting that our country bears sole responsibility for the global state of affairs. But we can bear a good deal of it, and therefore any steps we take to move away from war will have great influence upon other countries around the world. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, we had the most powerful armed forces in the world, the most sophisticated weaponry, and by far the largest number of military bases outside our own borders. Since World War Ⅱ, we have used our military might to bomb, invade, or otherwise intervene in more countries around the world than any other nation. We were the first to develop the atomic bomb, and we are the only nation ever to use it. For years we have led the Soviets in atomic test explosions, and we are continuing these tests even though Soviet testing has stopped. In addition, we have long been the world’s largest arms merchant, today supplying forty percent of the entire overseas arms market.
We have been told that all of this is necessary for our security, but the opposite is true. The military colossus we have created has greatly undermined our security — by creating more enemies than it destroys, by wasting our precious resources and poisoning our environment, by degrading our democracy with “national security” secrecy, covert actions, and official lying, and by undercutting our highest Judeo-Christian values with the insidious doctrine of “might makes right.”
Betsy’s and my actions that have brought us here today are testament to our belief that there is another way for us to live in the world, and another way for us to resolve our conflicts with our fellow human beings. It is a way that is rooted in the best of our values, the values of generosity and justice, of human dignity and equality, of compassion and mutual respect. The seeds of this alternative way — the way of nonviolence that Dr. Martin Luther King tried to teach us — already exist within our society, and within each person. We have only to honor and nurture those seeds, individually and collectively. This is a prescription based not on wishful idealism, but on practical necessity. It is our only real hope for survival.
The transformation that is required cannot be accomplished without our accepting some measure of personal responsibility for the mess we are in. It would be futile to expect our government, or any other, to initiate it. In any event, we cannot afford to wait. The transformation must begin with us. Because we profess to be a self-governing people, it is all the more our responsibility.
We can exercise this responsibility by means of the choices each of us is called upon to make. For example, we can choose to speak out publicly against governmental practice and priorities that we know to be wrong, or we can remain accomplices through our silence. Many of us can also choose not to hand over to the federal government some part of our tax money, and instead redistribute it to those in need — until such time as those in need become our government’s first priority. And each of us can choose to continue leading lives based on materialism, consumerism, and environmental exploitation, or we can find ways of living based on simplicity, sharing and respect for the earth. The choices we make as individuals will determine the choices we make as a nation.
This is, no doubt, a dangerous and ominous time to be alive in the world. Yet is is also a very exciting time to be alive. People all over the world, despite the opposition of their governments, are taking the initiatives to bring about momentous and long overdue changes. These winds of change are sweeping the planet — and they are not likely to stop at our boarders.
If the people of Prague and Moscow can overthrow Soviet communism and bring about democracy and human rights; if the people of Soweto and Johannesburg can abolish South African apartheid and establish an egalitarian, multi-racial society; then, I feel sure, it is equally possible for us in the United States to dismantle American militarism and replace it with attitudes and institutions of nonviolence.
It is my great hope, my silent prayer, that Betsy’s and my struggle to see that the fruits of our labor are used for nurturing and healing, rather than for killing and war, will somehow, in some unforeseen way, contribute to that process.
Hampshire Country Jail
December 12, 1991