“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
These words, from Isaiah in the Hebrew Scriptures, increasingly ring hollow in our American society. But on occasion, they can come to life and confront us.
May 9, 2016, was such an occasion for me. This would have been Daniel Berrigan’s 95th birthday. Berrigan was perhaps America’s most famous living peace activist until his death a few weeks ago on April 30 in New York. Berrigan was a Jesuit priest who committed many acts of civil disobedience during his nonviolent protests — and served substantial time in prison for doing so.
Also on May 9, 2016, John Dennis Apel surrendered to federal authorities in Los Angeles to begin a prison sentence. Apel is perhaps the most famous peace activist in our region. He has committed nonviolent acts of civil disobedience during protests at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Such civil disobedience once brought him before the U.S. Supreme Court. Now it has brought him to prison.
Dennis Apel is a Catholic Worker who provides impoverished farmworkers in Guadalupe with food and medical services. He connects the poverty in Guadalupe to Vandenberg Air Force Base, located 20 miles away down Highway 1. Intercontinental ballistic missiles are tested at Vandenberg. Personnel who will operate those missiles in a nuclear conflict are trained at Vandenberg. It is these activities that Dennis Apel and others protest at Vandenberg.
The U.S. spends more on its national defense as the next seven nations combined. (Peter G. Peterson Foundation, http://www.pgpf.org/chart-archive/0053_defense-comparison) We have the most powerful military in the world. To say that nuclear weapons are superfluous is a gross understatement. Moreover, nuclear weapons are unusable in countering the real threat to our national security: terrorism. In fact, the longer we keep nuclear weapons, the more we encourage their proliferation and the likelier they are to fall into the hands of terrorists.
Yet, our country will spend $348 billion to modernize our nuclear weaponry from 2015 through 2024. (Congressional Budget Office, Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2015 to 2024, Jan. 2015, https://www.cbo.gov/publication/49870) Think of how $348 billion could modernize our physical and intellectual infrastructure: pressing needs that advance our societal welfare. Spending these monies instead on nuclear weapons amounts to transforming our plowshares into swords.
So why do we continue such irrational policy? Allowing Dennis Apel’s imprisonment to confront us can inform our perspective here.
Dennis Apel left the side of Highway 1 to carry his peaceful protest down the entrance road of Vandenberg Air Force Base. There he was arrested for trespass, although he was standing on ground that is open to the public. Apel knew he was violating a base regulation and expected to be charged and penalized.
Apel faced Magistrate Judge Louise LaMothe in the U.S. District Court in Santa Barbara, who imposed a sentence of six-months supervised probation and 200 hours of community service. On principle, Apel refused to comply with his probation, knowing noncompliance would likely lead to imprisonment. Consequently, he returned to court for resentencing.
The U.S. Probation Office then recommended that Apel be imprisoned for 30 days. (See the U.S Probation Office’s April 12, 2016, “Summary of the Violation” report for United States v. John Dennis Apel, Case No. CC21-3560161-LAL.) Its report found: “such a sentence to be sufficient, but no greater than necessary, to sanction the breach of trust, to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct and to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant.”
The prosecuting Assistant U.S. Attorney, who had prosecuted numerous trespass violations at Vandenberg for well over a decade, recommended that Apel be imprisoned for 60 days.
Judge LaMothe disregarded these recommendations and imposed a sentence of 120 days imprisonment: four times the length recommended by U.S. Probation and twice the length requested by the Assistant U.S. Attorney. This was remarkable, because Apel’s trespass neither threatened national security nor harmed the public.
The same cannot be said for the sentence imposed by Judge LaMothe. The U.S. Probation Office weighed the public cost of Apel’s imprisonment in its recommendation, which it calculated at $2,552 monthly. (See the U.S Probation Office’s February 4, 2016, Presentence Investigation Report.) Meanwhile, the U.S. Government Accountability Office identifies overcrowding at federal correctional institutions as a key issue and challenge facing our nation. (www.gao.gov/key_issues/federal_prison_system/issue_summary )
So what can be concluded from the disproportionate sentencing of John Dennis Apel? It is symptomatic of the militarization of American society, which has now spread to our judiciary — the final safeguard of civil liberties. Our security and freedom are perilously out of balance. We live now by swords rather than plowshares — swords we ourselves one day may fall upon.
Scott Fina assisted John Dennis Apel in his motions and legal briefs.