TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Jack McCall on Nov 1, 2016

Journal Issue Date: Nov 2016

Journal Name: November 2016 - Vol. 52, No. 11

By Dan Zak | Blue Rider Press | $27 | 402 pages | 2016

The world entered the Nuclear Age — as some would call it, “Day One” — on July 16, 1945, at the Trinity site in New Mexico. As author Dan Zak recounts in Almighty, the selection of the site’s code name was made by the Manhattan Project’s lead physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, “because he had both John Donne and the Bhagavad Gita on the brain”: in the one case, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and in the other, creator, preserver and destroyer. Oppenheimer later said that as he watched the first atomic fireball and mushroom cloud soar, he recalled these words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Thus, from the outset of the atomic era, seeds of spirituality and doubts as to what nuclear weapons would present for humankind’s fate seemed almost inextricably and equally interwoven with military and scientific concerns.

For those on both sides of the spectrum — members of the various anti-nuclear weapons coalitions that have emerged since 1945, and the workers and participants in the national defense and energy programs that support and secure the American nuclear arsenal — such weapons posit a very existential, if not a Manichaean, outlook. Prophetic figures and outsized personas have loomed large on both sides. Among these are three of the leading figures in Almighty: a longtime Catholic nun in her 80s, a Vietnam veteran turned antiwar/“anti-nuke” activist and another ex-soldier who became a student of Daniel Berrigan. This improbable trio — Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed — nevertheless successfully and peacefully infiltrated what was supposed to be one of the nation’s most impregnable, and deadly, security zones.

On an early morning in July 2012, equipped with hammers, spray paint and bags of human blood, the three marked and hammered on the imposing concrete fortress of the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, or “HEUMF” at Y-12 in Oak Ridge. They had crossed multiple fences and evaded security cameras and sensors to do so, and they were apparently willing to lay down their lives for their beliefs: the HEUMF is the central storage point for a sizeable portion of the U.S. nuclear warhead arsenal, and its civilian guard force was (and is) authorized to use deadly force to protect the site.

Fortunately for the “Transform Now Plowshares” activists — the moniker taken by the “Oak Ridge Three” — the security guard who first confronted them was Kirk Garland, a longtime veteran of DOE security who immediately recognized them as harmless. Unfortunately for Garland, the restraint and tact he used in identifying and detaining the activists apparently cost him his job at Y-12.

Structurally, Almighty weaves a web of investigation and research that alternates from the latter day — the 2012 incident and the courtroom drama that followed — to the earlier lives of the three activists and security guard Garland, interspersed with critical elements of the history of the U.S. nuclear arms program and the anti-nuclear weapons movement. That Zak can move quite dexterously among the alternating then-and-now interplays of history is one sign that he is a formidable author, as well as the craftsman of a well-told story. The coldly (no pun intended) rational polices and brinksmanship of the Cold War’s “mutual assured destruction” theory is counterbalanced by Zak’s review of the deeply spiritual and philosophical underpinnings behind much of the “no nukes” movement and the three activists at the heart of the story.

For Tennessee lawyers and legal historians, the set piece framing much of the middle portion of Almighty is the courtroom action posed by the federal prosecution of the protestors. The team in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Knoxville were led by two thoughtful and deeply committed lawyers who were also Catholics, Jeff Theodore and Melissa Kirby: lawyers who, Zak reports, “respected the courage of their convictions” when it came to Sister Rice and Messrs. Walli and Boertje-Obed, but who nevertheless felt duty-bound to press tenaciously for a most stringent prosecution and enhanced sentencing, due in large part to the post-9/11 national security threats revealed at Y-12 by the Plowshares protest. Contrast the two AUSAs with the group of defense counsel, including Francis Lloyd Jr., described by Zak as being a lawyer “straight out of a John Grisham novel” and a “lawyer with clients, not a lawyer with causes,” dubbed “St. Francis” by his clients.

Zak also quotes U.S. Magistrate Judge C. Clifford Shirley Jr., who, on being told by lead defense counsel that the very trial of the Plowshares’ trio would determine “the survival of humanity,” interjected: “I’m having a little bit of a disconnect in understanding how the trial of essentially a trespassing case will affect the literal survival of humanity, regardless of the outcome. So, I guess I would ask you: Which result will cause humanity to survive? Guilty or not guilty?”

Through the prism of the July 2012 protest, the trial of the three activists, and the fate (in certain ways, a tragic one) of the Y-12 security guard Kirk Garland, Dan Zak is able to recast what for many Americans is dry, national security “techno-speak” and what, to others, is an apocalyptically inflected vision of potential thermonuclear war and mass destruction.

In Almighty, Zak presents a powerfully told account of how various average Americans have responded to the challenges posed by the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and the equally spiritual and deeply personal drives that have motivated those on both sides of the divide. The law and policy undergirding the prosecutions and (plot spoiler) imprisonment of the three Plowshares activists is just part of the compelling and highly topical story of Almighty.

JACK H. (NICK) MCCALL is an attorney with the Tennessee Valley Authority Office of General Counsel in Knoxville. Any views and opinions expressed herein are solely attributable to McCall.