He is known affectionately to thousands of people in Tacoma, Washington simply as "Bix," short for Father William Jerome Bichsel. Bix is an 83-year-old Jesuit priest whose every move is currently being monitored by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, courtesy of an electronic ankle bracelet he is required to wear every time he ventures out (and that's only between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.) of the tiny Catholic worker house where he lives on 15th Street.
Why is the federal government so interested in the comings and goings of this rail-thin octogenarian with failing eyesight and a bum heart (he's had two open heart surgeries)? The answer can be found in the upcoming documentary Bangor 5, which follows the federal case against five unlikely "commandos" who executed a bold and daring break-in at one of America's most highly sensitive military installations in 2009, the Kitsap-Bangor U.S. Navy Trident nuclear submarine base located 20 miles west of Seattle. The naval base reportedly has a stockpile of some one thousand nuclear weapons, holding more than anywhere else in the country. This was an operation that would rival a SEAL Team 6 undertaking, as the intruders slipped into the 7,700 acre base by cutting through three fences under the cover of darkness, roamed undetected for more than four hours, and penetrated a "shoot to kill" zone guarded by Marines.
The Bangor 5 are a far cry, however, from a team of strapping young ninjas toting high tech automatic weapons. They are all over the age of 60, and include Father Bix; 85-year-old Sister Anne Montgomery, a New York City Catholic nun from the Society of the Sacred Heart; Father Stephen Kelly, another Jesuit; and Susan Crane and Lynne Greenwald, who are both grandmothers. These elderly intruders scoped out the base using a map from Google and broke in armed only with the power of their moral conviction.
Why would five seniors risk getting shot to death on a nuclear base? All are longtime peace activists who, borrowing a page from Wiki Leaks, say they felt morally compelled to act as citizen weapons inspectors to expose America's "weapons of mass destruction." The Kitsap-Bangor naval base is the home port for eight of the nation's 14 Trident nuclear submarines.
"They are hugely destructive machines," says Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Each ship carries the equivalent of "800 Hiroshima-size bombs," says Kristensen, enough nuclear firepower to destroy every city in the northern hemisphere.
According to former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who appears in the film, "There's the capacity operating out of that base (Kitsap-Bangor) to destroy life on the planet." The Bangor 5 say that this level of lethality is immoral, and as citizens, they are compelled by the Nuremberg Principles to speak out about real or potential actions by the State that imperil humanity. The weapons, they say, also violate the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which declares that any international treaties the U.S. has signed are the supreme law of the land. The Bangor 5 also believes the use of nuclear weapons would violate provisions of the Geneva Convention, which the United States has signed, that prohibit indiscriminate killing and acts of violence when civilians cannot be distinguished from combatants. The activists hoped to raise all of these issues as part of their defense, but were precluded from doing so in federal court.
The Bangor 5 are members of Plowshares, an international movement opposed to nuclear weapons, which follows the injunction of the Prophet Isaiah who urged nations to abolish war and "turn swords into plowshares." They are also embraced by a community of thousands of activists in the Pacific Northwest who have waged a campaign over the past 40 years to raise awareness on the stockpile of nuclear weapons in their backyard and on the lethality of Trident in particular. Although most Americans know the nation possesses nuclear weapons, they are largely unaware of their modern-day level of lethality or of their location. Most Americans also assume that these weapons are "legal," just because the United States and other nations posses them. A number of world bodies have concluded the weapons violate international humanitarian law.
The Bangor 5 were all convicted on conspiracy, trespassing and destruction of government property charges and sentenced to prison in March 2011. Now, for the first time, they are telling their story exclusively in the film Bangor 5, which raises questions about the vulnerability of the United States' nuclear security, while also exploring the legality surrounding the nation's production, threat of use and potential use of its nuclear arms.
Father Bix says that even after decades of fasts, vigils, protests and demonstrations designed to raise public consciousness on the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons, the issue is not on people's radar. "It's not on the front burner or the back burner. It's not even on the stove," he adds. Bill Quigley, who was a member of the Bangor 5 defense team, the Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, says the reason is because in the Unite States nuclear weapons are "sort of like the family secret; It's the uncle nobody wants to talk about." The dramatic personal story of five people who put their lives on the line and forfeited their freedom because they believe so deeply that humanity is at a critical tipping point, offers a unique opportunity to delve into that deep dark family secret. I hope you will watch out for the film, which is coming soon.