When I went off to college, I immediately got involved with the movement to do away with nuclear weapons; I was a religious pacifist, I was attending a Quaker college, it was a natural thing to do. Some of the other students were planning to engage in civil disobedience, and I began to consider doing so myself. I wrote to Pat Green and asked his advice. Pat had been the assistant minister and the youth advisor at my church, and I remembered that he had talked about being arrested for engaging in civil disobedience while protesting the Vietnam War. “Somewhere in the FBI files,” Pat had said, “there’s mug shots of me wearing one of those conical Vietnamese hats.”
By then, Pat was the minister of the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Birmingham, Alabama. He wrote back quickly, and said he would not advise me to engage in civil disobedience. He felt his arrest had not had any effect on United States war policy; the only thing it had done was to give him a criminal record; the price paid was not worth the end result. Maybe he thought that he had to say that to a seventeen year old kid, but I doubt it: Pat was terribly sincere, and I think he really meant what he said.
Two and a half years later, I saw some friends of mine getting arrested trying to blockade the entrance to Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. That same weekend, I also saw that the greatest effect of our protest at Seabrook was to polarize opposition, and reduce the possibility of meaningful dialogue about nuclear power plants. I was at Seabrook, partly for the adventure of it, but also because of a dawning systems-level understanding that the nuclear power industry was intimately connected with the nuclear weaponry, not least because of the possibility of weapons-grade materials getting stolen by terrorist groups. That kind of understanding had no place in the rough-and-tumble world of protest politics, where often the most that happens is that people yell at each other and get ten second interviews with the news media.
I just went and re-read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” I had forgotten how deeply personal it is. I had also forgotten how deeply spiritual the essay is: Continue reading