Radical is a relative concept

  Dear HCN,

About 15 years ago, I heard poet and anti-war activist Father Daniel Berrigan speak in Portland. Berrigan was a leader in the Plowshares movement, whose participants entered factories and government installations to physically damage nuclear weapons.

After his speech, which was both passionate and supremely logical, Berrigan took questions from the audience. One man asked, "Since we're about to win a nuclear freeze," - which, by the way, never happened - -don't you think it's passé to go around banging on warheads with hammers?"

Berrigan gave the man a withering look. "People like me make people like you look reasonable," he said. "If they weren't arresting me for hammering on missiles, they would come after you for passing petitions."

I was reminded of Berrigan while reading Karl Brooks' essay on the Vail fire, "Terrorist tactics always undermine progress' (HCN, 12/7/98). Because of the property damage involved, Brooks would probably consider Plowshares actions to be "criminal violence." Certainly, the U.S. government and defense contractors did. Yet the brave men and women of Plowshares set an extraordinarily high moral standard that the rest of us in the peace movement still struggle to meet.

Brooks uses the labor movement to make his point about peaceful social change, but it's a dubious example. Going back to the original Luddites, the movement has always included elements of both sabotage and civil disobedience (sit-down strikes, work slow-downs, etc.). The presence of radicals within the movement made negotiation and collective bargaining look reasonable by comparison, and helped force management to the bargaining table. One only need look at China, where circulating a petition for an independent union can land you in prison, to understand that "radical" is a relative concept.

I have a hard time condoning the Vail fire, which was both dangerous and overly dramatic. I can't support tactics that threaten human life or wildlife. However, I'm careful not to automatically equate property damage with terrorism.

Whether or not we agree with their tactics, we must understand and respect the necessary role that radicals play in the ecology of social movements. By creating space for more moderate voices, they push the edge of what is politically possible.

Andy Robinson

Tucson, Arizona

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