The Harrisburg 7 is an interesting but tough read for someone looking for a straight forward, linear account of the 1972 conspiracy trial of probably the most notorious of the anti-Vietnam War draft board raids – it included a subplot to kidnap Henry Kissinger. O’Rourke, 26 years old, had no academic or real life experience as a journalist and thought of himself as a fledging fiction writer (he went on to publish several novels and now teaches creative writing at Notre Dame); he decided to make trial notes when he saw that’s what all the many dozens of journalists from all the major domestic and international media did. He characterizes the book as an essay modeled after its 18th and 19th century predecessors, inserting himself into the narrative as he responds to the judge, the jury, the times, and the accused – the notorious Philip Berrigan, S.S.J. Elizabeth McAlister, RSHM, and the quite forgotten other five : Eqbal Ahmad (a Pakistani, professor at Cornell when Daniel Berrigan taught there), Anthony and Mary Cain Scoblick (formerly a priest and a nun), Rev. Joseph Wenderoth, and Father Tony Mullaney, a Benedictine, serving in Roxbury, Mass. O’Rourke also plays the drama critic, referring to the near month long selection of the jury as a jurodrama with 500 intermissions, asking Who is better at rattling their symbols? than the Catholic Left, and describing Hoover’s position in the government, besides that of chief law-enforcement official, as that of Archbishop of Canterbury . But O’Rourke doesn’t paint Philip Berrigan as a modern day Beckett. For the sociologist interested in religion and social movements this edition published 40 years later with an Afterword and index makes for a fascinating ethnographic read.
Among the many hundreds of anti-Vietnam war protest actions and draft board raids which started in the mid-1960s and lasting into the early 1970s, the trial on the Harrisburg 7, O’Rourke says, is key for understanding the fate of what came to be known as “The New Catholic Left”. The draft board raid, in Philadelphia, happened on Feb. 6, 1970 and on November 27, 1970, in testimony before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Director J. Edgar Hoover announced that the FBI had uncovered “an incipient plot on the part of an anarchist group….the so-called ‘East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives’…a militant group, self-described as being composed of Catholic priests and nuns, teachers, students and former students….(whose) principal leaders….are Philip and Daniel Berrigan….to blow up underground utility systems - electrical conduits and steam pipe tunnels - serving the Washington, D.C. area in order to disrupt federal government operations. The plotters are also concocting a scheme to kidnap a highly placed government official….the plotters would demand an end to United States bombing operations in Southeast Asia and the release of all political prisoners as ransom”.
On Jan. 12, 1971, the first indictment came down. After a month of jury selection — over 400 were called — the trial began on February 21, 1972. Aware of the theatrics, the prosecution included four Catholic U.S. attorneys. In terms of the O’Rourke phrase "Political trials as Broadway seasons", the defense team made the prosecutors look like understudies. It was far more celebrated and included Leonard Boudin, Ramsey Clark, Paul O’Dwyer and supporters such as Howard Zinn, Prof. Richard Falk, Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary), Joan Baez, and Judy Collins. The Harrisburg 7 attracted large support groups, including a large youth contingent. Nationally the “ jurodrama” attracted large audiences. On the Tonight Show Bob Hope said “’They suspect three priests because the ransom note was written in Latin’”
In appearance, the Catholic Left had won. Not only had they brought a huge stage light – sixty press representatives covered the entire trial – to their moral critique of the Vietnam War and the demands of conscience but the jury, save for the contraband charge against Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister for smuggling letters out of and into the Lewisburg Prison (via the paid FBI informant Boyd F. Douglas, Jr.) the jury, 3 men and 9 women, was hung 10-2. The Berrigan – McAlister letters, read to the jury, included passages of endearment and both soon left their ecclesiastical statuses for marriage. Wink-like, O’Rourke asides that resistance work has never been said to impede romance. O’Rourke gave the following appraisal of the trial and its impact on the Catholic Left:
The government lost the 1972 federal conspiracy trial of the Harrisburg 7 insofar as there was a hung jury of the major counts charging Father Berrigan and six others of conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up heating tunnels in Washington, D.C., but won because the trial itself deflated the moral capital of Berrigan’s group of Catholic Left anti-war protestors, leaving their movement somewhat splintered and dispirited. In O’Rourke’s analysis the mostly symbolic draft board raids – pouring blood on draft records - had inevitably reached a “natural” limit. To avoid a mood of futility, moral protest requires constant upgrading. O’Rourke goes analytic.
It was a fundamental mistake, he writes, to think draft board raids could serve as a foundation from which new and better forms of protest could be built. Draft board raids, he writes, were a dead end. To “ambulate” they would need a new medium, and not, he gratuitously adds, “the dry riverbed of nonviolence”. Philip Berrigan had dismissed the practicality and moral hazards of any Kissinger kidnapping and any DC tunnel bombing. But in a letter to McAlister he says that when he warns against the possibility of murder it is not to prohibit it absolutely. O’Rourke informs the reader that previously Berrigan had put forth as one argument against the Vietnam war the Catholic Church’s definition of a “just war” and then adds that logically if "Berrigan can reason to a just war, he can reason to a just murder (empgasis added).
In his forty years later postscript O’Rourke writes, “When I concluded the Harrisburg book by crying out, ‘O America,’ I never thought the country would be worse forty years hence. But it is hard to conclude otherwise… (The Harrisburg 7) were among the last, best, hopeful protestors, wanting only for the country to do right. They were living through a golden age of protest.” But he pays but small attention to the later peace work of the Plowshares Movement, which has lasted into the 21st century, the increasing emphasis on nonviolence and the questioning of just war theory among many Catholic ethicists and hierarchy, Protestants, and others, and the skepticism about nuclear weaponry expressed by former high government officials, including the non-kidnapped Henry Kissinger. O’Rourke references but does not reflect on any implications of the Occupy Wall Street movement(s). He characterizes as politically shrewd the 1974 end of the draft making for a “volunteer” military. He writes that “The idea of demilitarizing our country is one of the most laughable tasks on the face of the earth”. So, in an irony of sorts, O’Rourke ends up being the journalist he never intended to be – reporting on the most obvious of news while keeping the imagination, especially the moral imagination, of his 24 year-old self at a very mature distance.
After The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left, the conscientious sociologist would do well to read Sharon Erickson Nepstad, Religion and War Resistance in the Plowshares Movement (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008).