Anti-war activist Brian Terrell began serving a six-month sentence Friday at the federal prison camp in Yankton, South Dakota. Last April, Terrell and about 40 others staged a protest at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to demand an end to U.S. drone bombings in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries.
Officially the drone program is classified, although the Obama administration has both denied the program’s existence, boasted of its success at killing anti-American militants, and denied Freedom of Information Act requests for more information. But estimates from the New America Foundation and the U.K.'s Bureau of Investigative Journalism put the number of CIA drone attacks just in Pakistan at around 350, with 2,000-3,500 deaths, of which 20-25 percent were innocent civilians, including at least 150 children. Some of the drones are reported to be operated by remote control from Whiteman.
Terrell and two others were arrested when they left the protest and entered the base to deliver a list of their grievances about the drone program. His six-month sentence is the maximum under the federal law against trespassing on a military base.
Terrell told a Latin American television station that he’s most troubled by the way the the drone program removes some of the psychological barriers to war by compressing time and space, a frequent objection to the program. When drone operators sit within the safety of U.S. borders, thousands of miles away, the argument goes, killing becomes easier. Distance may also make drone pilots less susceptible to the psychological effects of civilian casualties, and therefore less prone to go to greater lengths to avoid them.
Terrell’s arrest is the latest in a spate of stories about what appears to be a more active movement of Catholic progressives. Over the summer, a group of activist nuns from the group Network toured the country in a bus to promote redistributive economic policy, earning them a rebuke from the Vatican for not putting equal emphasis on the church’s opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Church leaders were particularly agitated with the nuns for supporting the Affordable Care Act, which requires church-affiliated hospitals and other organizations to include birth control in employee health insurance plans.
Terrell himself lives on a Catholic Worker commune in Idaho. The Catholic Worker Movement is a radical, sometimes paradoxical faction of church activists founded by the journalist, Catholic convert and social activist Dorothy Day. The group is adamantly anti-war, and members are sometimes called “Christian anarchists,” although Day and modern leaders of the movement have also claimed to be influenced by Marx and Lenin.
Terrell’s arrest and Catholic background raise some interesting questions about which issues the church leadership chooses to support and emphasize, such as why war opposition isn’t given the same sort of full-throated institutional support as opposition to abortion.
Political pundit Michael Brendan Dougherty, a devout Catholic, outspoken opponent of war, and writer for the The American Conservative, says that the church believes abortion is intrinsically evil, and unjust wars are evil, but it doesn’t often delve into which wars are and aren't just. That difference is why church officials often embrace opponents of abortion rights who advocate for war while leaving Catholic anti-war activists like Terrell out on their own.
“Because anti-war sentiment is often correlated with a certain laxity on the issue of abortion,” Dougherty says, “prelates tend to stay away from it as a political issue. And so people like Brian Terrell who have a radical moral protest against war are without leadership, and thus without examples of moderate and lawful engagement with the political culture at large.”
But that conversation may be coming. Day, an anti-abortion, anti-war human rights activist who at times supported radical wealth redistribution, is currently under consideration for sainthood.