IT'S BEEN ALMOST 45 years since nine Catholic peace activists entered a draft board in Catonsville, Md., filled two wastebaskets with military draft files, and burned the papers in a parking lot. What made the headlines especially big was the involvement of two Catholic priests, Daniel and Philip Berrigan.
For many people, me among them, the Catonsville raid was a turning point in our lives. It also triggered passionate debate about the limits of peaceful protest. Could property destruction be called nonviolent?
The prime movers of the Catonsville Nine were Phil Berrigan and George Mische. Mische had worked for U.S.-funded groups fostering labor movements in the Caribbean and Latin America. Phil had fought as an infantryman in World War II, where his courage won him a battlefield commission. Dismayed that the peace movement was having no discernible impact on events in Vietnam, Berrigan became convinced of "the uselessness of legitimate dissent." He opted for firing the cannons of civil disobedience.
Many U.S. troops were draftees; few had a longing to go to war in a country that posed no threat to the U.S. and whose borders most Americans couldn't find on a globe. The key role conscription played in keeping the war going made draft-board files an obvious target. One of the nine, Tom Lewis, called the files "death certificates."