Idol Worship

April 23, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO. — Almost everything about George Bush's war is turning to ashes in his mouth. He went, while the war was still being waged, to the factory that makes Patriot missiles. He was celebrating their great success. The atmosphere was that of a religious service in a temple of war, with the Patriot missiles as huge icons.

Now scientists have told the House Armed Services Committee that the Patriots probably caused more damage than they prevented. Injuries from Scud attacks increased by 50 percent in Israel after the Patriots were used against the Scuds. Several Patriots chased the separated parts of Scuds, adding to the debris of falling missiles (since the Patriot explodes itself near whatever part of the target it has approached). As the New York Times reported of one day's activities:

''On January 25, the videotape showed that one Patriot self-destructed in mid-air while two others skimmed rooftops and then crashed into residential areas, and the fourth climbed and then dived into a warehouse district.''

The proponents of SDI and other advanced weapons systems were glowing, during the war, with their boasts that the Patriot would lead the way for new weapons.

Early this last Easter morning, a different attitude to these icons was exhibited by five people calling themselves ''AEGIS Plowshares.'' They went onto the USS Gettysburg, an AEGIS ship of advanced radar and missilery. These religious opponents of nuclear weapons treat the weapons as idols. They roamed the ship, which they could have extensively sabotaged, to find missile heads they could hammer on, obeying Isaiah's injunction to hammer swords into plowshares. Then they turned themselves in to a security officer, who said they could go. They refused.

It was the 39th such ''Plowshares action'' over the last 10 years -- counting seven in Western Europe. The best-known of the Plowshares activists is Philip Berrigan and his wife, of Baltimore, and his brother -- and now his children, coming of age to bear their own witness.

The court system hardly knows what to do with these demystifiers of our great national-security state. The ease with which they get to the weapons is an embarrassment. We often hear about the danger of nuclear terrorists penetrating the careful security around our nuclear sites. The advocates of peace show just how real those fears should be. But it is the weapons themselves that are the danger -- as Israelis found out when the Patriots were used to ''help'' them.

The site of the Gettysburg's docking was the Bath Iron Works in Maine, at a town that does not even have a jail. So the five protesters, after being arrested, were scattered about the state to towns with jails willing to entertain them. Brought before a judge, they refused to sign a release or pay bail. Brought back, they were released without signing or paying anything. Like the security officer, the judge did not want these prisoners of conscience around.

That is an attitude most of us share. These persistent people are no longer part of a socially ''interesting'' protest movement, as in the 1960s. Like the troublesome abolitionists of the 1840s and 1850s, they keep thrusting at us a matter we cannot deal with, one we hope will go away. But the Civil War showed that slavery would not go away of itself, and neither will nuclear weapons.

The Plowshares group stands trial in May. Then, no matter what happens -- they have been jailed, fined and warned for decades now -- they will be back. Who can claim their iconoclastic attitude toward these weapons is sillier than George Bush's genuflections to the Patriot?

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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