Sunday, December 20, 2009

Vigilantes And Demonstrators

April 20, 1985
Port Charlotte

We have just finished singing “Soon the day will arrive when we will be together and no longer will we live in fear.” How long before that day arrives? Not soon, I surmise, when one considers the tensions and terror of our times.

The subject today is vigilantes and demonstrators. To be looked at are Bernhard Goetz, the subway shooter who took vigilante action, the so-called “pro-lifers” who bombed a Tallahassee clinic, the church people who provide sanctuary for refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala, and the demonstrators at South African embassies. What these persons have in common is breaking the law. These persons also have convictions they believe take priority over the law.

Are the laws just convenient, to be willfully broken when one has other goals, values, ideals or fears that require lawbreaking?

In MACBETH (Act II, Sc. 1), one of the assassins assures Macbeth of his willingness to carry out the crime:

“I am one, my liege
Whom the vile blows and buffets
of the world
Have so incensed that I am
reckless what
I do to spite the world.”

In reviewing several issues, hotly disputed in these months of 1985, there will be a look at causes so fervently held that the believers are so incensed that (they are) reckless in what they do [to] spite the world – reckless in the sense of consciously and willingly breaking laws to accomplish purpose.

Then I will inquire if there is an ethic to justify such lawbreaking, and whether such an ethic requires standards of behavior even when breaking the law.

First, the case of Bernhard Goetz, the subway vigilante who took the law into his own hands when approached by four young men. Taking out the gun, which he illegally carried, Goetz shot the four, one of whom is still hospitalized, suffering brain damage and paralysis from the waist down.

After a grand jury initially indicted Goetz only on the charge of illegally possessing a gun, the case was re-submitted to a grand jury. Based on evidence not included in the first Grand Jury hearing, he has been indicted on charges that he tried to murder the four young men in the subway train last December. The trial has not yet been held, so no one can predict at this time whether Bernhard Goetz will be convicted on any of the charges.

But what is important to the subject today is the reaction of the public to the subway shootings.

Hotlines recorded hundreds of calls praising Goetz as a hero; one senator from New York offered both to pay for the legal defense and to testify for Goetz. The shootings seem to bring to the surface the city dwellers’ constant fear of violent crime, their deep discontent with the necessity of using the subway system – overcrowded, unreliable, and subway cars splashed with ugly or vulgar graffiti. The subway experience in New York City is not a joy-ride, but an unpleasant, fear-filled ordeal. Furthermore, it is reasonable to conclude that the many persons who have been mugged, robbed, or otherwise violated felt their intense frustration somewhat released by the heady rush of sweet revenge accomplished in John Wayne fashion by the subway vigilante.

Next there is the case, just now being decided by a jury, for the Christmas Day bombing of the abortion clinic in Tallahassee. Two young men, both 21, and two younger women, fiancee and wife [to the men], respectively, are alleged to have purchased explosive materials, made pipe bombs, and set them off at the clinic. [CJW note: they have been convicted] Their defense lawyer is quoted as saying that the four are not terrorists, but “Christ-like innocents and knights in shining armor.” The defendants claimed that they were acting on orders from God. The newspaper (4/17/85) reported that one defense attorney is planning an insanity defense (which, by the way, presents a fascinating theological problem – if one believes he/she is acting on “orders from God” is this insanity?). That may or may not be so, but it is clear that violent crime was committed by four people, and justified by many more, on the ground that what they believe to be God’s will overrides the laws of the state.

Then consider the controversial matter of sanctuary. In defiance of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), [a number of illegal aliens (perhaps several hundred, and with the support of thousand more) from El Salvador and Guatemala are being transported and sheltered by churches].

There have been at least 16 sanctuary movement leaders indicted, and more than 60 arrested. The Federal government claims that churches have no legal right to protect lawbreakers, in these cases, illegal aliens. In 1980, Congress passed an act recognizing political asylum for those fleeing persecution. As the INS interprets that law, persons fleeing communist countries are “political” refugees and entitled to asylum. Refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala are “economic” refugees and [are] in this country illegally.

Why this labored distinction when there have been thousands (perhaps 50M) killings in [El] Salvador and a cruel military dictatorship in Guatemala? As William Sloane Coffin pointed out, “the reason is transparent. It would be highly embarrassing to grant ‘political’ status to refugees coming from countries whose governments our own government enthusiastically supports with military and economic aid.”

There is probably no legal basis in the U.S, for the medieval common law that the church is sanctuary for the law-breaker. There may be a legal defense in that the INS has made a bureaucratic interpretation beyond the act that Congress passed. Be that as it may, churches transporting and sheltering illegal aliens are breaking that law as interpreted. Many of our own Unitarian Universalist societies are confronting this issue, dealing with strong differences of opinion. Events may or may not place before our voting members the necessity to take a position “yea” or “nay.”

Then there is South Africa and the demonstrations in Washington, DC, and other places in our country where there are arrests every day for illegal demonstrations. Among those arrested have been Eugene Pickett, President of the UUA, David Eaton, minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Washington, many other Unitarian Universalists, and hundreds of others from the spectrum of all religious affiliations. They are protesting the cruelties and inhumanity of the government of South Africa where 80% of the population is black – 23 million people who cannot vote, who must carry an ID pass at all times, who cannot own real estate in the white areas of the country, where the government forcibly resettles blacks in wretched areas called “homelands,” where only half the children will reach the age of 5, where 270 have been killed in the last 15 months when peacefully protesting.

Disengagement in South Africa is not an issue here, because there is nothing illegal about shareholders pressuring U.S. corporations to cease their large investments and enterprises in South Africa. But demonstrators arrested in Washington are breaking the law.

Here are four developing events in our time – in the papers we read, the TV we see, and strong opinions we hear on each side of the controversies. My attempt to digest vast and complex issues may be inadequate, but I think sufficient to make distinctions which are important to me.

Bernhard Goetz, the subway vigilante.
The bombers of the Tallahassee clinic (and there were at least 29 other bombings of abortion clinics in 1984 alone)
The advocates of sanctuary for illegal refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala.
The protestors against the inhumane government of South Africa.

However much Bernhard Goetz lived in fear, and however much many responded with approval or satisfaction at the gut level, shooting down the four youths with a handgun carried illegally is wrong. No matter how much the so-called “pro-life” people either favor, sympathize, or tolerate the violent bombings of women’s clinics, they too are wrong. I do not question the sincerity of their beliefs, but the violent methods used.

On the other hand, I support the sanctuary movement, although that may be illegal. I support those who protest the tyrant government of South Africa, although some of those protests are unlawful.

The prime reason for such attitudes is the distinction between violent and non-violent resistance. One’s personal ethics are the choices one makes between wrong behavior and right behavior. In the course of our lives, there is the struggle between the ends or goals one seeks and the means or methods one uses to accomplish the goals. [CJW note: Horance Davis]

The subway vigilante, according to his own statements, went far beyond reasonable self-protection, shooting the young men in the back when they retreated, and endangering the lives of 20 other passengers with flying bullets. The problem of crime is authentically a pressing reality, but it would not be solved, but extensively compounded, if we all armed ourselves and responded with a quick trigger in real or assumed to be threatening situations.

The “pro-life” forces make a mockery of their own slogans when they commit terrorist bombings or apologize for them. Would they concede that the majority who disagree with their stand have a right also to commit terrorist acts to support their point of view?

My support of peaceful, even when unlawful, demonstrations for the purposes of political pressures simply acknowledges that civil disobedience is sometimes necessary to secure and maintain values which the dissenters believe essential. The underground railroad in the Civil War represented unlawful activity. Today we look upon the participants as heroes and cherish as shrines the stations where slaves were hidden during the perilous escape to Canada. During the civil rights struggles of the 50s and 60s, there were thousands of arrests, but the goal was accomplished.

The essential points were non-violent protest and the willingness to accept the penalty if convicted. Gandhi was the great exemplar of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience, and was jailed many times. So with Martin Luther King Jr., who is the model for such action in this country. He, too, was arrested many times, but never wavered in the essential foundations that dominated his philosophy to accomplish needed social change: civil disobedience, when necessary, non-resistan[ce], and accepting the legal penalty for such action if convicted.

In conclusion (to await your questions and rebuttals), let me repeat the words of Henry Steele Commanger, in two principles [that] are the very core of Americanism: the principle of the Higher Law, or of obedience to conscience rather than statutes, and the principle of pragmatism, or the rejection of a single good and the notion of a finished universe. “From the beginning, Americans have known that there were new worlds to conquer, new truths to be discovered. Every effort to confine Americanism to a single pattern, to constrain it to a single formula, is disloyal to everything that is valid in Americanism.”

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