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Remembering Father Daniel Berrigan, a Prophet of Peace

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In this Memorial Day special, we begin today’s broadcast remembering the life and legacy of the legendary antiwar priest Father Daniel Berrigan. He died on April 30, just short of his 95th birthday. Berrigan was a poet, pacifist, educator, social activist, playwright and lifelong resister against what he called “American military imperialism.” Along with his late brother Phil, Dan Berrigan played an instrumental role in inspiring the antiwar and antidraft movement during the late 1960s, as well as the movement against nuclear weapons. Today we air Father Berrigan in his own words, including previously unaired sections of his 2006 interview on Democracy Now!

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

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s special broadcast remembering the life and legacy of the legendary antiwar priest, Father Daniel Berrigan. He died April 30th, just short of his 95th birthday. Berrigan was a poet, a pacifist, an educator, asocial activist, a playwright and a lifelong resister against what he called “American military imperialism.” Along with his late brother Phil Berrigan, Father Dan played an instrumental role in inspiring the antiwar and antidraft movement during the 1960s, as well as the movement against nuclear weapons in the early '70s. He became the first Catholic priest to land on the FBI's most wanted list. Georgetown University theology professor Chester Gillis once said of Father Berrigan, quote, “If you were to identify Catholic prophets in the 20th century, he’d be right there with Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton.”

In early 1968, Father Dan Berrigan made international headlines when he traveled to North Vietnam with historian Howard Zinn to bring home three U.S. prisoners of war. In the documentary Holy Outlaw, Father Dan recalled spending time in Vietnamese shelters while being bombed by U.S. jets.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: So we were in this shelter and very unexpectedly came on three children, who were crouching in there, too, against all expectations, and one of the elder children feeding rice to one of the younger ones. And I wrote this little verse within a couple days and tried to read it later at our trial, to the great anger and discomfiture of the judge. But it seemed to sum up for me everything that Catonsville was about in one image, one reality. It’s called “Children in the Shelter.”

Imagine; three of them.

As though survival
were a rat’s word,
and a rat’s death
waited there at the end

and I must have
in the century’s boneyard
heft of flesh and bone in my arms

I picked up the littlest
a boy, his face
breaded with rice (his sister calmly feeding him
as we climbed down)

In my arms fathered
in a moment’s grace, the messiah
of all my tears. I bore, reborn

a Hiroshima child from hell.

AMY GOODMAN: On May 17, 1968, Father Dan Berrigan, his brother Phil Berrigan and seven others took 378 draft files from the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland. Then, in the parking lot of the draft board office, the activists set the draft records on fire, using homemade napalm, to protest the Vietnam War. They became known as the Catonsville Nine. The act of civil disobedience was chronicled in the 2013 documentary Hit & Stay: A History of Faith and Resistance. This begins with Dan Berrigan.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: We make our prayer in the name of that god whose name is peace and decency and unity and love. We unite in taking our matches, approaching the fire. We’re all part of this.

GEORGE MISCHE: While people throughout the world, and especially Vietnam now, are suffering from napalm, that these files are also napalmed, to show that these lives can fall on the same fate as the Vietnamese.


DAVID DARST: Napalm, which was made from information and from a formula in the United States Special Forces handbook published by the School of Special Warfare of the United States. We all had a hand in making the napalm that was used here today.

JIM HARNEY: Napalm is a very old weapon. It goes back to the Byzantines. But it really came to public attention during the war in Vietnam, in the pictures of napalmed people. So that was the kind of quintessential symbol of the war: We were burning babies, literally, in Vietnam. So that’s why we wanted to come up with something symbolic and also something that would really destroy the files.

TOM MELVILLE: Our church has failed to act officially, and we feel that, as individuals, we’re going to have to speak out in the name of Catholicism and Christianity. And we hope our action to inspire other people who have Christian principles or a faith similar to Christianity will act accordingly, too, to stop the terrible destruction that America is wreaking on the whole world.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: We regret very much, I think all of us, the inconvenience and even the suffering that we’ve brought to these clerks here.

FATHER PHIL BERRIGAN: We sincerely hope we didn’t injure anyone.

PRIESTS: Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: We have chosen to be powerless criminals in a time of criminal power. We have chosen to be branded as peace criminals by war criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: Father Dan Berrigan and other members of the Catonsville Nine were arrested on the spot. Dan Berrigan wrote, quote, “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children,” unquote. The draft board raid invigorated the antiwar movement by inspiring over a hundred similar acts of protest. It also shook the foundation of the tradition-bound Catholic Church. Father Dan would eventually serve time, about two years, in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.

In 1980, the Berrigan brothers and six others began the Plowshares Movement when they broke into the General Electric nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The activists hammered nuclear warhead nose cones and poured blood onto documents and files. They were arrested and charged with over 10 different felony and misdemeanor counts. They became know as the Plowshares Eight. I want to turn to a clip from the film In the King of Prussia. This scene features Dan Berrigan reciting what he told the judge and jury during the trial.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: You’ve heard about hammers and blood in this room. These are the hammers of hell. These are the hammers that will break the world to bits. These are the hammers that claim the end of the world. The judge knows it. The prosecutor knows it. We’ve seen people walk away from these things. We’ve seen them disclaim them. We’ve seen them say they are not responsible for them. We’ve seen all sorts of language circling them like a dance of death. They are murder. He knows it. He knows it. You must know it. We have been trying—we eight—to take responsibility for these things, to call them by their right name, which is murder, death, genocide, the end of the world. Their proper use is known to the judge and the prosecutor and to you. …

We would like you to know the name of our crime. We would like to assume responsibility for a world, for children, for the future. And if that is a crime, then it is quite clear that we belong in their jails. Where they belong is something else. But in the name of all the eight, I would like to leave with you, friends and jurors, that great and noble word, which is our crime: “responsibility.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt from the film In the King of Prussia, the film directed by Emile de Antonio. We turn now to one of Father Dan Berrigan’s last appearances on Democracy Now! It was June 8th, 2006, shortly after his 85th birthday.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about that first decision you made in Catonsville, before Catonsville, to do it, what you were doing at the time, and how you made the decision?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Yeah. I was teaching at Cornell, and Philip came up. He was awaiting sentencing for a prior action in '67 in Baltimore, where they poured their blood on draft files in the city. And he came up to Cornell and announced to me, very coolly, that he and others were going to do it again. I was blown away by the courage, and the effrontery, really, of my brother, in not really just submitting to the prior conviction, but saying, “We've got to underscore the first action with another one.” And he says, “You’re invited.” So I swallowed hard and said, “Give me a few days. I want to talk about pro and cons of doing a thing like this.” And so, when I started meditating and putting down reasons to do it and reasons not to do it, it became quite clear that the option and the invitation were outweighing everything else and that I had to go ahead with him. So I notified him that I was in. And we did it.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this was after you had been to North Vietnam.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Right. This was May of ’68, and I had been in Hanoi in late January, early February of that year.

AMY GOODMAN: With historian Howard Zinn.


AMY GOODMAN: Freeing prisoners of war?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Yes, we brought home three flyers who had been captured and imprisoned. It was a kind of gesture of peace in the midst of the war by the Vietnamese, during the so-called Tet holiday, which was traditionally a time of reunion of families, and so they wanted these flyers to be reunited with their families.

AMY GOODMAN: In Catonsville, was this the first time you were breaking the laws of the United States?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: No, I had been at the Pentagon in ’67 in—I think it was in October. And a great number of us were arrested after a warning from McNamara to disperse. And we spent a couple of weeks in jail. It was rather rough. And we did a fast. And we were in the D.C. jail, which was a very mixed lot. So I had had a little bit of a taste during that prior year.

AMY GOODMAN: You and your brother, Phil Berrigan, had an unusual relationship with Secretary of Defense McNamara. You actually talked to him, wrote to him, met him?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Yes. I met him at a social evening with the Kennedys in about '65 and after this very posh dinner, which was welcoming me home from Latin America. One of the Kennedys announced that they would love to have a discussion between the secretary of war and myself in front of everybody, which we did start. And they asked me to initiate the thing, and I said to the secretary something about, “Since you didn't stop the war this morning, I wonder if you’d do it this evening.” So he looked kind of past my left ear and said, “Well, I’ll just say this to Father Berrigan and everybody: Vietnam is like Mississippi. If they won’t obey the law, you send the troops in.” And he stopped. And the next morning, when I returned to New York City, I said to a secretary at a magazine we were publishing—I said, “Would you please take this down in shorthand? Because in two weeks I won’t believe that I heard what I heard. The secretary said, in response to my request to stop the war, quote, 'Vietnam is like Mississippi: If they won't obey the law, you send the troops in.’” And this was supposed to be the brightest of the bright, one of the whiz kids, respected by all in the Cabinet, etc., etc., etc. And he talks like a sheriff out of Selma, Alabama. Whose law? Won’t obey whose law? Well, that was the level at which the war was being fought.

AMY GOODMAN: So you went to Catonsville, you went into the draft office.


AMY GOODMAN: We hear about draft card burnings. But this was draft file burnings.


AMY GOODMAN: You went in with a group of people. Now, some of them—you talked about having been in exile in Latin America, and some of them were there more about treatment of what was going on, the U.S. government, in places like Guatemala than Vietnam, is that right?


AMY GOODMAN: Why were you exiled to Latin America?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, there was a lot of controversy and a very hot scene here in New York City, beginning about '67 into ’68. And I think the occasion of my being kicked out was the immolation of a young Catholic Worker in the city here, named Roger LaPorte. He went to the U.N. and burned himself. And, of course, the young Catholic Worker community was devastated by this terrifying event. And they wanted to hold a memorial service, and I was invited to officiate. And in the course of it, I cast doubt upon the judgment of the cardinal that this had been suicide. I said, “I don't think we know. I think this could have been some kind of misguided heroism that said, ’I’m going to give my life rather than take life.'” And that word, of course, got out, and there was panic. There was panic, in the authorities of the Archdiocese of New York and in my order. And they said we've got to—he’s got to—”He’s become a very hot item. We’ve got to get him out of town.”

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you exiled to?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, it was a one-way ticket to Latin America. And so, I was down there, I think about five months. And I was in at least 10 countries purportedly reporting back to my editorial people in New York about conditions down there. It was a wrong move. It generated huge publicity not just in the Catholic community but across the country. And they were forced to call me back. So I came back with a stipulation that I go on with my peace work. And they said, “OK, OK.”

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you certainly did in force. And from Catonsville, you served how many years in prison for that?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, I think it was about two years.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, with your brother Phil, you founded the Plowshares Movement, your first action in 1980?


AMY GOODMAN: King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you did at the GE plant.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, we had had meetings, I recall, all that spring and autumn with people about the production of an entirely new weapon, the Mark 12A, which was really only useful if it initiated a nuclear war. It was a first-strike nuclear weapon and was being fabricated in this anonymous plant, huge, huge factory in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. And there had never been an attempt in the history of the antinuclear movement—there had never been an attempt to interfere with the production of a new weapon. And with the help of Daniel Ellsberg and other experts, we were able to understand that this was not a Hiroshima-type bomb. It was something totally different. It was opening a new chapter in this chamber of horrors. So, we decided we will go in there in September of ’70 [sic]. And we did.

AMY GOODMAN: September of ’80?


AMY GOODMAN: And what does that mean, you did?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, we didn’t know exactly where in that huge factory these weapons were concealed, but we had to trust in providence that we would come upon the weaponry, which we did in short order. We went in with the workers at the changing of the shift and found there was really no security worth talking about, a very easy entrance. In about three minutes, we were looking at doomsday. The weapon was before us. It was an unarmed warhead about to be shipped to Amarillo, Texas, for its payload. So it was a harmless weapon as of that moment. And we cracked the weapon. It was very fragile. It was made to withstand the heat of re-entry into the atmosphere from outer space, so it was like eggshell, really. And we had taken as our model the great statement of Isaiah 2: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.” So we did it, poured our blood around it and stood in a circle, I think, reciting the Lord’s Prayer until Armageddon arrived, as we expected.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were tried?

DANIEL BERRIGAN: We were tried and convicted in short order and sentenced, eventually, to three to 10 years. And we were out on appeal for 10 years. The trial was such a farce that the state of Pennsylvania really didn’t know what to do with it. And it went on and on and on. And finally, in 1990, a retired judge, kind of weary of the whole game, gave us both time served.

AMY GOODMAN: Father Dan Berrigan, speaking on Democracy Now! in June of 2006. We’ll return to the interview in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Today, a special broadcast remembering the lives of two champions of social justice: Father Daniel Berrigan and attorney Michael Ratner. In a moment, we’ll return to my 2006 interview with Dan Berrigan, but first let’s go back to the documentary Hit & Stay, looking at the time Father Berrigan spent living underground as a fugitive from the FBI while his conviction in the Catonsville Nine case was under appeal.

INTERVIEWER: During the time he was in hiding, Father Berrigan changed his location often. He stayed with 37 different families in 10 Eastern and Midwestern cities. Well, Father Dan, you’ve been underground for some time now. What’s it like to be underground in the United States of America?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, I’d say that it looks as though it could go on forever. It looks good enough, looks useful enough, for the movement.

LIZ McALISTER: So there were some, what, four months that they looked for Dan, everywhere. And he was everywhere and available to everyone, except the FBI.

AMY GOODMAN: That was an excerpt from the documentary Hit & Stay. That last voice was peace activist Liz McAlister, Phil Berrigan’s wife. On May 6, Liz gave the eulogy at Dan Berrigan’s funeral. We return now to my 2006 interview with Father Dan Berrigan.

AMY GOODMAN: After the trial, you went underground. Why did you decide to do that?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, the war had worsened, and the spring of '70, the campuses were aflame. Nixon had invaded Laos. There was secret bombing going on. The war had widened. It was a bad time to turn oneself in, and we were comparing that order to military induction. It was like saying, “Well, I'm going off to war. I’m going to obey them and go off to war. I’m going to take the penalty for what we did to make the war evidently, evidently unwinnable and unwageable. So, a group of us said, “No go,” and went underground.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does that mean when you go underground?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, it meant that the FBI was on your tail and that Hoover was outraged and very angry and kept marking up sheets—that we got out, Freedom of Information, later—saying, “Get him! Get him!” and scrawling all these orders around and putting extra people on our tail.

AMY GOODMAN: But you were showing up in the strangest places.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: All sorts of places, including preaching in church and getting on national television with a good interview and so on and so forth. So, it really increased the edginess of the whole thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what happened—was it at Cornell? They almost caught you there?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: That was at the beginning of all this. In early spring of ’70, they had a big rally in our favor at Cornell. And I showed up unexpectedly and got away again, in spite of the presence of FBI all over.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you get out?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: I went out in a puppet of one of the 12 apostles. They had had a beautiful mime on stage that night showing the Last Supper. And somebody whispered in the darkness, “Wouldn’t you like to go out?” And I said, “Well, let’s try it.”

AMY GOODMAN: So you went out as one of the apostles.


AMY GOODMAN: And you slipped past the FBI.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Got away, for months.

AMY GOODMAN: How did they catch you?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: There were letters exchanged between Philip in prison and Elizabeth.

AMY GOODMAN: Philip Berrigan, your brother.


AMY GOODMAN: And Elizabeth McAlister.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: His fiancée or wife at that point. And they gave a kind of a hint as to the fact that I would be visiting friends on Block Island, which proved true, so we had birdwatchers out there, and they got me.

AMY GOODMAN: There was that famous picture of you with a peace sign and the—


AMY GOODMAN: —authorities on either elbow—


AMY GOODMAN: —taking you in. And how long did you serve then?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: I think that was two years then.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re sort of talking about this lightly, but what does it mean to serve time in jail?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, at that point, it just meant—I think that we had kind of demythologized the fact that now Philip and I were under lock and key, and that there was work to be done in there as there had been good work to do on the street. So we were dealing with prisoners who had no other access. We were teaching, counseling. I was—I was leading a Bible study. There was all sorts of good work to be done with prisoners, so we did it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Father Dan Berrigan, has probably been arrested more times than years he’s lived on this Earth, now 85 years old. Father Dan Berrigan, I was wondering if you could read some of your poetry. Your latest book is A Sunday in Hell: Fables & Poems. Why did you choose that title?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, it’s the title of one of the—one of the fables in here. I talk about a preacher who suddenly has to face the fact that he hasn’t made it himself, and finds himself in very strange circumstances. I won’t give it away, because I hope everyone will get the book. But I’d like to read a poem in honor of by brother Philip, who died three years ago. And this was written when we both were in prison, around '70 to ’72, and I think the occasion was Philip's birthday. But anyway, I presented this poem to him called “To Philip.” And it goes like this.

Compassionate and casual as a good face
(a good heart goes without saying)
someone seen in the street; or
Infinitely rare, once, twice in a lifetime

that conjunction we call brother or friend.
Biology, mythology cast up clues.
We grew together, stars made men
by cold design; instructed

sternly (no variance, not by a hairs-
breadth) instructed sternly in course and recourse. In the heavens
in our mother’s body, by moon and month
were whole men made.

We obeyed then, and we’re born.

So he liked it, and that was enough.

AMY GOODMAN: You survived your brother, Phil. As you reflect on that relationship you had with him, as you’re talking about this special bond, brother and friend, prison mate, activist, fellow activist, can you talk about what it meant to live with him and to lose him?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, it doesn’t get easier. I’ll start with that. I think the best clue I had, let’s say, out of reading and meditating about Philip, especially around the time he died, was a statement by Augustine of Hippo, Saint Augustine, who had lost a good friend. And he said in his memoirs that he had lost, quote, “the half of my soul,” ”dimidium animae meae.” I lost the half of my soul. So, for a while at least, after an event like that, a terrifying event, I think one feels like an amputee in the world. There’s something very disabled going on, and you’re asked to continue walking. And it’s very hard, something like that. But in time, I think one gives up that feeling, because there’s work to be done and there’s another war. And Philip would be the first to say, “Walk it.” And so I keep trying.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve continued to get arrested. Do you think these arrests, what you have engaged in, protests, even when people are not being arrested or jailed, have an effect? I mean, you have gone through a number of wars now. Do you think things are getting better?


AMY GOODMAN: Or do you think they’re getting worse?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: No, this is the worst time of my long life, really. I’ve never seen such a base, cowardly violation of any kind of human bond that I can respect. These people appear on television, and the unwritten, unspoken motto seems to be something about “We despise you. We despise your law. We despise your order. We despise your Bible. We despise your conscience. And if necessary, we will kill you to say so.” I’ve never really felt that deep contempt before, for any kind of canon or tradition of the human.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “We despise your Bible”? It is often said it’s done in the name of the Bible.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, yes, these people are—they’re making a scrapbook out of the Bible in their own favor. And they’re omitting all the passages that have to do with compassion and love of others, especially love of enemies, or the injunction to Peter, “Put up your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword,” all of that. All of that gets cut out in favor of, well, a god of vindictiveness, the god of the empire, the god who is a projection of our will to dominate and to prove ourselves over your body.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that it means, the fact that things are getting worse, the strategy has been wrong, the strategy of peace activists?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: No, the point of—my understanding of the spirituality of nonviolence is that you cut yourself free of any kind of necessity of succeeding. You cut yourself free of the other end of the good work you’re trying to do, and concentrate upon the goodness of the work you’re trying to do.

AMY GOODMAN: What recommendation would you have for young people today?

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, I don’t have a great deal to say directly to young people. I have a great deal to say to their elders, their priests, their parents, their teachers, people that I’m grandfather to. And it would go very shortly like this: The young people will be different if you are different. That is to say, you elders. And people like myself are not moved by anything except example. And as a teacher, I have tried to give a good example and get arrested first and then invite the students to look more seriously at this matter of war.

AMY GOODMAN: Father Dan Berrigan, speaking on Democracy Now! in 2006. Days after that interview, hundreds gathered in New York to mark his 85th birthday. Dan recited one of his best-loved poems, “Some.”

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: And this poem was played before tonight, but I’d like to dedicate it to all of us, all of us who come here and who keep at it. “Some.”

Some stood up once, and sat down.
Some walked a mile, and walked away.

Some stood up twice, then sat down.
“I’ve had it,” they said.
Some walked two miles, then walked away.
“It’s too much,” they cried.

Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools,
they were taken for being taken in.

Some walked and walked and walked
they walked the earth,
they walked the waters,
they walked the air.

“Why do you walk?” they were asked, and
“Why do you stand?”

“Because of the children,” they said, and
“Because of the heart,” and
“Because of the bread,”

“Because the cause is
the heart’s beat, and
the children born, and
the risen bread.”

Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Father Daniel Berrigan reciting his poem “Some.” Father Berrigan died April 30th, 2016, just shy of his 95th birthday. You can go to our website at democracynow.org for our full coverage of his death and his life. When we return, we remember the pioneering human rights attorney Michael Ratner. Stay with us.

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