Jeremy Scahill Remembers His Longtime Friend, Father Daniel Berrigan: "The Man was a Moral Giant"

May 03, 2016


Jeremy Scahill

co-founder of the The Intercept. His new book is The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program.

"I may not be here if it wasn’t for Dan Berrigan," says journalist Jeremy Scahill as we remember the legendary antiwar priest, Father Daniel Berrigan, who spent his lifetime nonviolently protesting militarism, nuclear proliferation, racism and poverty. Berrigan died Saturday in the Bronx, just short of his 95th birthday. Scahill was a college student when he first met Berrigan, and went on to become close friends with him and his brother, Philip. The conversations they had inspired him to pursue fiercely independent journalism. "This man was just a moral giant," Scahill says, "the closest thing we have in our society to a prophet."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in our 100-city tour in Sarasota, Florida, headed to Atlanta, Georgia, tonight. But today we’re spending the hour with The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald, looking at the stunning new book, The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program.

But first, Jeremy, I want to ask you about the death of Father Dan Berrigan, who died Saturday at the age of 94. Along with his late brother Phil, Dan Berrigan played an instrumental role in inspiring the antiwar and antidraft movement during the late '60s, as well as the movement against nuclear weapons. Jeremy, you were a dear friend of Dan and Phil Berrigan's. Can you talk about the significance of the life of Dan Berrigan, and just tell us who he was and what he meant to you?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Amy, I would say that, you know, I actually may not be here if it wasn’t for Dan Berrigan. My dad—both of my parents are nurses. And my dad grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and he was going to be a seminarian. And, you know, his parents were Irish immigrants, very Catholic family. He was the only boy in the family. It seemed like a sort of fait accompli that he was going to have to be a priest. And he went to school, and he studied theology. And then, in the mid-1960s, there was the emergence of what was known in the United States as the Catholic left—people like Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement; Thomas Merton, who—the brilliant Trappist monk, who was one of the early intellectual voices against the war in Vietnam; and then these two rebel priests, Father Daniel Berrigan and Father Philip Berrigan. And Dan Berrigan had given a talk that my dad went to, and it deeply impacted my father, and he basically left home and moved to New York to the Catholic Worker house on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And it forever altered who our family was and the sort of moral code that we were taught as children.

I mean, I grew up knowing of the Catonsville Nine, Philip and Dan Berrigan and seven of their friends going into the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, in May of 1968 and taking hundreds of draft files that were being used to draft primarily African Americans in that area into the war in Vietnam. Of course, black Americans were deployed disproportionately to Vietnam along with the poor. And Phil Berrigan had been a civil rights priest, a member of the Josephite order, and had participated in the Freedom Rides in the South. Dan Berrigan was already a fairly famous literary figure. He had won a major poetry prize for his first book of poetry. And for these two priests, in their full religious garb, to have led this kind of a protest and then burn these draft files with homemade napalm reverberated around the world, and it energized a movement of young Catholics and people of faith to become very, very political about the war in Vietnam. And it also inspired a series of actions similar to Catonsville in Camden, in Milwaukee, around the country, where people, saying that they were motivated by their religious faith, going into draft boards and burning draft cards or pouring blood on draft cards. So I grew up in a household where Daniel Berrigan and Dorothy Day and Phil Berrigan and the late, great Dave Dellinger, legendary peace activist, one of the Chicago Eight in the conspiracy trial stemming from the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968—

And so—but I didn’t meet Dan Berrigan because of that. I was in school at the University of Wisconsin, where I was—well, I would just say that I was enrolled in school; I wouldn’t necessarily say that I was participating in school. But I was doing work with people who were homeless, and I decided I didn’t want to be at the university anymore, and I hitchhiked out to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1995. And at that—and I had no idea that the entire peace movement was descending on D.C. that summer to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And I remember seeing all of these people that I had been told about during my childhood were the real heroes of our society and whose books lined my father’s bookshelf in our small apartment that we lived in as little kids. And one day, I—Dan Berrigan came. And he was outside of the Pentagon, just standing like anyone else. And to me, you know, it would be like seeing LeBron James, you know, for some kids today, where it was like, "Oh, my god! This is Father Daniel Berrigan!"

And anyway, I went up and introduced myself to him. And we were standing around, and Liz McAlister, who, of course, is an amazing activist and just an incredible, wonderful person, who also was Phil Berrigan’s partner and of course one of Dan Berrigan’s closest people ever to him, she—I think she realized that I was a little bit awestruck by being around Dan Berrigan, and she said, "Hey, kid, would you mind escorting Father Berrigan to go and use the bathroom?" And this is pre-9/11, so, you know, I’m like, "Wow! I get to walk Dan Berrigan to a bathroom!" And I didn’t know it, but we—it was pre-9/11: We could actually go into the Pentagon. So I walked into the Pentagon with Father Daniel Berrigan, who had served time in federal prison for burning the draft files they had used to send so many people to the war in Vietnam. And when we walked in, as uniformed members of the military were walking out, they greeted Dan Berrigan as though he was like a—you know, a cousin that they see from time to time at family reunions, because he had spent so much time protesting there. And then, we go into the Pentagon, and we’re in the bathroom, you know, using their facilities. And Dan says to me as we’re standing there, "You know, in the 1940s, when Roosevelt authorized the building of this place, there was talk of it being converted to a hospital when the war was over." And then he sort of pauses, and he says, "And, you know, in a way, they kept their word. It’s the largest insane asylum in the world."

And that started my relationship with Dan and Phil Berrigan, and I ended up living with Phil Berrigan, painting houses for the better part of a year and a half. And really, it was like having an alternative education. I always say that I—you know, I list as my university, on social media, Democracy Now! And I would say that the combination of—Amy, of hearing you for the first time on the radio and discovering this whole world of Pacifica and community media, and then having daily conversations with people like Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister and Daniel Berrigan, really shaped who I wanted to be. And, you know, I put a picture up on Twitter, Amy, of you sitting with Dan Berrigan when my book Dirty Wars came out, and I was just saying that, you know, without these two, meaning you and Daniel Berrigan, I would not be who I am today and not be about what I’m about today.

And, you know, I don’t think we were shocked by the death of Dan. I mean, he was almost 95 years old. He was in very frail physical condition. But this man was just a moral giant and the closest thing we have in our society to a prophet. And last night I was watching one of the networks. The only real coverage, outside of Democracy Now!'s beautiful show on Dan Berrigan, was on Chris Hayes's show on MSNBC, and Chris Hayes played a clip of Chris Wallace, who’s now of course the Fox News Sunday host and son of the legendary 60 Minutes journalist Mike Wallace. And it was in 1981, and Chris Wallace says to Dan Berrigan, basically, "Well, you used to be famous, but nobody really pays much attention to what you do these days." Meanwhile, a year earlier, they had—Dan and his colleagues had gone into this nuclear plant at the General Electric factory in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and hammered on Mark 12A warheads, starting the Plowshares Movement, which became global. But Dan’s response to Chris Wallace was just classic Dan Berrigan and also just sort of stunning in its simple brilliance. He said, "Well, you know, we don’t view our conscience as being tethered to the other end of a television cord." And I thought that it was just—you know, it was such a commentary on the dingbat factory in Washington versus someone whose entire life was about not just saying something, like so many of these pundits do, but standing there. And, you know, I always loved what Dan Berrigan wrote about Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, when she died. He said that Dorothy Day lived as though the truth were actually true. So, too, to Dan.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jeremy, I thank you for introducing me to the Berrigans, Phil Berrigan, before he died, and Dan Berrigan. And it was really coming full circle when my colleague and co-author Denis Moynihan and I went up to Fordham to visit Dan a few years ago, to be able to bring him your latest book, Dirty Wars. Now, I want to go to an—oh, we also brought him one other thing: ice cream. His favorite food, ice cream. But—

JEREMY SCAHILL: Amy, can I tell you one thing about Dan Berrigan and ice cream that not that many people know? First of all, Dan Berrigan loved ice cream, and his fridge was always stocked with ice cream. But he loved ice cream so much that it caught the attention of Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont ice cream company, manufacturer. And they—you know, they contribute to a lot of progressive causes. And Dan Berrigan and the Black Panther, Bobby Seale, and Michelle Shocked and Pete Seeger and Spike Lee all appeared in a Ben & Jerry’s ad. And I think Dan’s was like mocha chocolate fudge, and he’s holding it up as though it’s sort of like a Eucharist, you know, the communion at church.

But Dan was given, by Ben & Jerry’s, a lifetime supply of the ice cream, for any—so any event the Catholic Worker would have that Dan was involved with, Dan would make sure that like, you know, a massive like crate of Ben & Jerry’s was delivered. He always had it in his freezer. And if he would walk into an ice cream shop somewhere and they had Ben & Jerry’s, he would tell them that he was Dan Berrigan and he has a right to as much ice cream and ice cream for his friends. And so, I also think that it was allowed to be transferred to some of his family members. Frida Berrigan, Dan’s niece, who you had on the show yesterday, who’s a dear old friend of mine, she and I once went into a—we were outside of a trial that was going on for some antinuclear activists, and we went into a Ben & Jerry’s shop. And Frida said—looked at the poster of Dan, was up on the wall there, and she said, "That’s my uncle, and I demand my free ice cream." And they actually—they said, "Really, you’re Dan Berrigan’s niece?" She said, "Yes." They said, "What do you want?"

AMY GOODMAN: And they had a flavor named after him, right?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, Raspberrigan, yeah. No, it’s—he loved life. He loved ice cream. And the thing that—you know, sometimes when we—we look at the clips of Dan Berrigan, that are now increasingly circulating around online, and I encourage young people to look at them, but what you often don’t hear about these sort of incredible giants of our time, you know, Dan Berrigan, the—probably, you know, along with Pope Francis, the most famous Jesuit in modern history, and certainly the Jesuit who has had the most impact around the world in terms of confronting war and confronting the church’s complicity in making war, but you don’t necessarily know that these—Dan Berrigan was a hilarious person. He was warm. He was funny. And he loved to gather among friends and have a little whiskey, and occasionally he would smoke a cigarette out the window of the—you know, of his apartment. And his home was just lined with posters and art from all of these people who Dan had walked the Earth alongside in his struggles. Even his bathroom was just wall to wall with photos of images of protest and resistance. And, you know, I’ll just—I’ll never forget the feeling that people who had the honor of being around Dan would get just by hearing his infectious laugh. Both he and Phil would—were capable of laughing to the point of tears. And to see these guys, who were such militant confronters of the U.S. empire, also enjoying just the existence on this planet and the people around them is really what I’ll never forget.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wanted to end with an excerpt of Dan Berrigan. He was interviewed on NBC’s Today Show back in 1981. Again, this was him being interviewed by Chris Wallace.

CHRIS WALLACE: Back in the Vietnam days, the Berrigan brothers were big. You attracted tens of thousands of people. Now you’re not as big. You do not attract the same attention.


CHRIS WALLACE: Is that hard for you?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: No, I don’t think we ever felt our conscience was tied to the other end of a TV cord. I think we’ve tried for a number of years to do what was right, because it was right.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Father Dan Berrigan on The Today Show in 1981. His funeral will be held on Friday in New York City at 10:00 a.m. at the Church of St. Francis Xavier on West 16th Street in New York. A wake will be held Thursday night. You can visit for our full coverage of the life and death of Dan Berrigan. When we come back, The Intercept's Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald on The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program.


AMY GOODMAN: "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" by Paul Simon. The line about a radical priest is, yes, a reference to Father Dan Berrigan.

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