Ordinarily I wouldn’t have a whole lot of sympathy for protesters who illegally break into a nuclear complex, deface and damage the facility, and cause it to shut down for two weeks. But in the case of Sister Megan Rice, the 83-year-old nun who, along with Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed, was convicted of doing just that at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, I’m a bit conflicted.
It’s appropriate to hold protesters accountable for their actions
On the one hand, when protesters take actions designed to hamper or terminate the operations of a national security facility, I’m pretty much of a give-them-what-they-deserve mindset. No matter how strongly they may feel about the supposed immorality of the program they seek to destroy, a small group of unelected individuals has no right to unilaterally make such decisions for the whole country.
Even when the intent is not to actually disrupt operations, but simply to make a political point as vividly as possible, which seems to be the case in this instance, I think the standard set by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Six Principles of Nonviolence” applies: protesters must be ready to “willingly accept the consequences of their acts.”
Finally, without regard to the merits of the protesters’ point of view, the message that you can physically attack and penetrate a nuclear facility and receive only a slap on the wrist is probably not one we want our courts to send.
So, for all those reasons, I would normally not have a problem with protesters such as Sister Rice and her cohorts receiving stiff sentences.
But here’s where my conflict arises. They did us a favor. A big favor.
These protesters provided a critical service to the nation
Reuters notes that the facility at Oak Ridge is the primary site in the US for the manufacture of nuclear weapons, and for the processing and storage of enriched uranium. That such a facility merits the very highest level of security goes without saying. In fact, Y-12 had the reputation of being the “Fort Knox of uranium.”
Yet in July of 2012, Sister Rice’s group was able to cut through a perimeter fence and enter what was supposedly the most secure part of the facility. They painted slogans, spattered blood, hung banners, strung crime-scene tape, hammered off a chunk of the wall, and walked around the complex for a full two hours before being accosted by security personnel. When they were finally hauled away, the site’s reputation for tight security was in tatters.
The protesters exposed highly dangerous security deficiencies
After a US Department of Energy inspector general’s report in August 2012 found “multiple system failures” and “troubling displays of ineptitude” at the complex, Energy Secretary Steven Chu called the incident “an important wake-up call” for our entire nuclear complex. And heads rolled.
High level officials at the National Nuclear Security Agency and in the private company charged with providing security at Oak Ridge were removed from their posts. A number of people were fired or demoted, and the security contractor was replaced.
Most importantly, a full security review that shut down the Y-12 facility for 15 days was conducted, and corrective actions implemented.
By any measure, the security of nuclear facilities in this nation should be greatly improved as a result of the incursion by these protesters. Just think: what if the ones who discovered the security holes at Oak Ridge had not been Sister Rice’s little group of three, the youngest of whom was 57 years old, but a team of well trained, well equipped, and highly committed terrorists?
The nation owes the protesters a debt of gratitude
Sister Rice’s band of protestors called themselves “Transform Now Plowshares,” invoking the biblical prophecy that one day “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” According to Reuters, when confronted by a guard, they didn’t attack with assault weapons or grenades; they offered him food and began singing. All-in-all, a relatively innocuous bunch.
Yet they were convicted of endangering national security by damaging a defense facility, which, under the sabotage act, could bring a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. They were also convicted of causing more than $1,000 in damage to government property, potentially a 10-year offense. The judge ruled that the group must remain in prison until their sentencing hearing in September 2013.
I think we need to strike a balance between officially condoning the illegal acts the protesters committed, and recognizing the debt of gratitude the nation owes them. To me, an appropriate outcome would be that after the several months they will have spent in prison by the time the sentencing hearing is held, the judge should sentence them to time served and set them free.