Berrigans slip in, and no one cares Disillusionment: A group of peace activists from yesteryear penetrates NSA and is met with a pleasant "thank you." Their leader reflects about the decades in the caldron and what it all has meant.

July 05, 1996|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Philip Berrigan and 25 peace activists -- including two toddlers and his 14-year-old daughter, Kathleen -- breached the security perimeter of the super secret National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade yesterday to protest its role as "the brains of the military death machine."

But they couldn't get themselves arrested.

And their blizzard of press releases the night before didn't attract a single TV van.

And, perhaps worst of all for this platoon of veteran protesters -- many of whom have done serious prison time over confrontations with cops and soldiers -- their grievances were fielded by a public relations man.

"Thank you very much, we appreciate all your efforts," said Stephen McAnallen, NSA's wavy-haired public affairs officer, cheerily. "We'll do our best to bring your concerns to the attention of the proper authorities."

With that, Berrigan and company dispersed after two hours of goading black-clad security forces without success outside the barbed wire fence around NSA's mirrored glass headquarters. In the long oral history of the tribe known as Jonah House -- the commune established by Berrigan in the days of smoke and tear gas -- this may be remembered as a crucible moment.

"It's pretty effective, what they are doing," muses Berrigan, almost admiringly. "They just waited us out. Very efficient. Very sterile. Just like the NSA itself. Nice and neat on the outside, while they're dealing death to the world on the inside."

Last week, as they planned yesterday's reprise of their much noisier Independence Day protest at NSA in 1974, Berrigan sat down under a gnarled tree outside his home on the grounds of St. Peter's Cemetery in West Baltimore and looked back across more than three decades of civil disobedience. To what end has their work come?

The question has echoed down through the years. But only now is it catching up with the former Josephite priest and his wife, Liz McAlister.

At 56, the ex-nun retains the ramrod bearing and piercing gaze of a mother superior. But her husband is 72 now, and a combined total of more than seven years in prison and decades of hard physical labor on behalf of the poor and the imprisoned weigh heavily on his stooped shoulders.

Surrounded by the tombstones of long-departed Irish Catholics, the couple considered their dwindling capital and the faltering exhalations of the radical peace movement they did so much to birth.

"When I think about the lack of security in our lives -- without a retirement plan, or any money in the bank or any kind of health care insurance -- it makes me uneasy at times," McAlister admits after a long moment of silence. "We made those decisions a long time ago, to search for meaning in our lives. But it certainly doesn't make it any easier today that we were right "

" Especially if you let yourself consider that maybe nobody was listening, which is entirely possible," says Berrigan, dragging on a Winston cigarette before letting a slight grin play across the crags in his face. "It can be a bitch sometimes."

In his old age, it seems, the famously dour Berrigan has found his sense of humor.

To be sure, this is a rare moment of public reflection on the correctness of his life's course. But that he is willing to engage such questions at all must still come as a surprise -- and as a small act of bravery -- to those who have known him for years.

These days, he is less inclined to blame us for our apathy. Less absolute about the righteousness of his own choices. And his messianic fervor -- which never seemed to fade as he grew from a young man burning draft records outside a Catonsville Selective Service office in 1968 to a middle-age man whacking on nuclear nose cones with a hammer in 1980 -- has dwindled to more mortal dimensions.

"There is no question that we are moving toward nuclear execution," he asserted with biblical certainty in 1987. "Everyone, including Americans, is teetering near the nuclear abyss. It is going to require a serious effort, not by some of us, but all of us. It will require a look at the inside of a jail cell."

Today, he allows himself to joke: "Jail gets to be old hat after a while."

Back then, though, the futility of exhorting suburban liberals in the Columbia Democratic Club to trade in their comfortable tract mansions for a stay at the federal pen seemed lost on him -- or his admirers.

An adoring media flocked to him, declaring Berrigan "a prophet" and "a hero" and "the Watchman." The producers of CBS' "60 Minutes" wired him up for a 1986 protest in Baltimore, hoping to secretly record the dull thud of police clubbing a holy man. But the cops kept their cool.

And as Ronald Reagan brought his Cold War rhetoric to a boil, Berrigan upped the ante, too. Breathtaking Holocaust imagery fueled his speeches -- visions of 20-story fireballs gobbling cities whole and the damned masses being fed into the atomic caldron by a global conspiracy of corporate greed and government corruption.

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