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Anti-nuclear activists Gregory Boertje-Obed, Sister Megan Rice and Michael Walli in Knoxville, Tenn., on Feb. 6, 2013.Linda Davidson/The Washington Post/Getty Images
OCILLA, Ga. — Sister Megan Rice presses the palm of her hand against the glass in greeting, her blue eyes welcoming her visitor in a cell opposite hers. Lamps illuminate her oval face framed by cropped hair like a white halo. Her uniform — a green-striped jumpsuit, sneakers and a gray blanket that covers her slender shoulders — is not the norm for a Roman Catholic nun, but she sees her presence in Georgia's Irwin County Detention Center as answering her Christian calling.
The 83-year-old Rice has chosen to spend the final chapter of her life behind bars.
She faces a possible 30-year prison sentence on charges of interfering with national security and damaging federal property, resulting from an act of civil disobedience she committed in July last year.
Exhausted after hiking through the woods adjacent to the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that once provided the enriched uranium for the Hiroshima bomb, Rice, along with Michael Walli and Gregory Boertje-Obed splashed blood against the walls, put up banners and beat hammers "into plowshares" — a biblical reference to Isaiah 2:4, "They shall beat swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks."
Breaking into a sensitive nuclear facility to stage a protest, the three activists were prepared for the worst. "We were very aware that we could have died," Rice said.
They were not killed but found themselves incarcerated. Now she spends her days answering letters from supporters and educating other detainees about the dangers of nuclear weapons — and the connections she draws between militarism and the poverty she believes has landed so many young women behind bars. Rice accuses the U.S. government of denying citizens such basic rights such as medical care and access to education because it invests so many billions of dollars in military equipment.
"Every day is a day to talk about it," she told Al Jazeera, raising her voice a bit to be heard through the glass wall that separates her from the outside world. "It's not time lost by any means."
Citing backgrounds of poverty from towns "where there are hardly any other options," she blames a capitalist economy for not investing more in social services available to the underclass and effortlessly connects nuclear weapons to the "prison-industrial complex." They're not bad people, she says of her fellow inmates, but were unfortunate enough to be born into a society that gave them few choices.
"They know that they are the human fallout and the victims of the profiteering by the elite and top leaders of the corporations that are contracted to make the nuclear weapons. It's (the money) denied to human services that should be the priority of any government," she said.
She coughs slightly, her nose running from the cold inside the jail. Every morning, she stands in line to receive her daily dose of antihistamines, but others receive pills for conditions far worse than what she has to endure, she said. "So many should not be here," she sighed, edging closer to the glass wall in which a talking hole was partly blocked.
"I don't see them as perpetrators but as the victims. People are being warehoused in detention centers all over the country."
Walli, a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran, also spends long hours talking to inmates, veterans from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder, whom he said should be getting proper treatment. "We try to do missionary work here," he said. "We're trying to instill the idea that human life is sacred."
Mushroom clouds in Nevada
Unlike most of her fellow inmates, Rice was born to an affluent family, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, whose next-door neighbor was a physicist secretly involved in the Manhattan Project, which created the world's first nuclear weapons. Her passion for social justice came early. She followed her parents to meetings of the Catholic Workers Movement with Dorothy Day, the social-justice activist currently on course for beatification. Her mother wrote her doctoral thesis at Columbia University on the Catholic view of slavery, and her father helped serve the city's poor as an obstetrician. "I just happened to have very conscientious parents," she said.
At 18, she joined the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and started teaching science to girls in rural Nigeria in 1962. During summer holidays, she visited her sister's home in upstate New York, where she would ride a horse in her habit, looking "different, not a typical nun," said her niece, who was named after her and is now 52. Wherever Rice went, she inspired people to follow her example, such that six to eight letters reach her cell every day. "I just get this feeling that the action she did with Michael and Greg is a culmination of her life," her niece said.
As malaria and typhoid began to take their toll, Rice permanently returned to the U.S. in 2003 and took up a position with the Nevada Desert Experience, a nonprofit organization advocating against nuclear warfare at a former test site. Ghastly visions of giant mushroom-shaped clouds became tourist attractions from hotel rooftops in Las Vegas, near which about 1,000 nuclear weapons were detonated since the 1950s.
Rice's uncle, a former Marine who watched Nagasaki being leveled, befriended a Jesuit bishop whose mother and sister were incinerated in Japan during a Mass. They were among the estimated 60,000 people immediately killed by the blast. He devoted the rest of his life to nuclear disarmament.
"That's how close I've been in touch with the reality," Rice said.
She was pleased to report that, nearly 70 years later, Japanese media reported on her arrest and lauded her action.
Hypocrisy in disarmament?
Rice and her friends were arrested for acts of civil disobedience they devoted to global nuclear disarmament at various stages of their lives. She feels a special responsibility to draw attention to the U.S nuclear arsenal, she said.
The logic of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty under which Iran is currently being held accountable, for example, requires that the existing nuclear-armed states take steps toward disarmament. Yet in 2008, for example, almost two decades after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. was spending at least $52 billion a year on nuclear weapons, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And only 10 percent of that spending is devoted to disarmament.
"It's extremely hypocritical to demand disarmament (from Iran)," Rice said, recalling an anecdote involving former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who reportedly honored the activist trio during a dinner in New York City last year, where he held a photo of them close to his heart. "It showed that he honored the effort to call the U.S. to its legal obligations."
The activists decided to stage a protest to draw attention to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Defunct cameras and fences couldn't prevent the three elderly people from damaging what some call the country's Fort Knox of uranium, raising questions about how they might restrain professional thieves with less idealistic intentions. Some members of Congress even thanked Rice and her accomplices for bringing the Y-12 facility's security problems to the nation's attention — the latest in a series of nuclear security breaches in recent years.
The U.S. nuclear weapons program has become the backwater of military services. In 2010 the Pentagon concluded that "the massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons."
Paul Carroll, program director at the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation that supports the elimination of nuclear weapons, said, "Sitting in a missile silo in the middle of the country, waiting for the day when the Soviets (attack) is a throwback. So they have morale problems. They're rusty."
Ralph Hutchison, a fellow peace activist and loyal friend of Rice's, said a generational disconnect pushed the nuclear issue into relative obscurity in recent years. A guest lecturer at a University of Tennessee sociology class, he said it's become increasingly hard to impress his student audience with the gravity of nuclear warfare.
"For decades there was duck and cover and you would climb under your desk at school," he said. "Kids today never had that moment. They don't have any idea about nuclear winter."
Rice may see her actions as inspired by her faith, but she has had little support from within the Church establishment. Retired Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a renowned peace activist, laments the Church's tepid stance on Rice's detention and nuclear weapons. Citing official doctrine that explicitly condemns the use of weapons of mass destruction as "a crime against God and man himself," he calls on colleagues to take up her cause as an exemplar of someone who stood up for what is right.
"They're supposed to be leaders on something like this. There hasn't been any kind of statement from Catholic bishops on what Megan has done," he said. To be frank, Gumbleton added, "in the official church, I have to say most people don't even know about her. And that's really sad."
Rice doesn't expect much from the establishment — not even from the new pope, whose recent pronouncements have raised many eyebrows. She isn't interested in institutions but swears instead by a grass-roots church. "The church is where the people are," she said. The church matters only "on a local level." She is skeptical of Pope Francis but feels encouraged by his choice of a less extravagant lifestyle than those of his predecessors, who she said had been living like "princes in their palaces."
Her order, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, offered the lone voice of support from within the Catholic establishment.
"While we do not condone criminal activity, we would like to point out that Sister Megan has dedicated her life to ending nuclear proliferation. With the Catholic Church, she believes nuclear weapons are incompatible with the peace so desperately needed throughout the world and therefore cannot be justified," Mary Ann Buckley wrote in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera.
Pope Francis certainly seems inclined to rebrand the Church as an institution that fights for social justice and is not afraid of protesting. "I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined," Francis wrote in the mission statement for his papacy issued last month. That's a message that has resonated with many young people in different parts of the world who have taken to the streets to protest austerity and vast economic inequalities.
"American Christians have been far too polite, too quiet and too accommodating of both the injustice and the blasphemous use of Jesus' name in committing atrocities in our nation and our world," wrote a group styling itself Protest Chaplains in a manifesto that coincided with the Occupy movement of which they formed a part. "That's why we want to protest with all those who, like us, know in the deepest places of our souls that another world is indeed possible."
Rice met with Occupy activists discussing nuclear issues in New York City, "when it began in September." She described their work as "religion doing what it's meant to be doing."
"The church is where the people are," she said. "It is the people."
A similar message has been echoed in Barcelona, where street activists known as Indignados took their cues from Sister Theresa Forcades, a Roman Catholic nun and activist who believes the current economic policy consensus among governments of industrialized nations perpetuates inequality. And like Rice, Forcades has been skeptical of Francis' pronouncements, arguing that the new pope should be judged by his attention to women's rights, which so far has been lacking.
Still, Rice is confidence that "it will come," referring to the ordination of women. Last year she attended the unofficial ordination — not recognized by the Vatican — of Diane Dougherty in Atlanta. "They are preparing the way and are receiving great acceptance from lay Catholics."
Lessons from prison
Her supporters say Rice's life exemplifies the social activism needed to revive the church's appeal among young people. Still, she's reluctant to be cast as a hero. Her heroes, she said, are ordinary people who act "according to our conscience."
As she awaits sentencing on Jan. 28 — facing a possible maximum term of 30 years — she borrowed phrases from Dr. Martin Luther King in a letter she sent to Al Jazeera. In it she reflected on her life, which may very well end in prison.
"On some positions, cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' And vanity comes along and asks, 'Is it popular?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?'" she wrote.
"And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but one must do it because conscience tells one it is right."
At a court hearing in May, she told the public prosecutor her only guilt is that she waited 70 years to break into the facility "to be able to speak what I knew in my conscience." Seven months later she said, "This is a very positive experience. It's getting better and better."
She remains uncomfortable being in the spotlight, looking to deflect attention to others. She settles on her fellow inmates in this prison, the ones she is helping prepare for a life outside prison bars — a life to which she herself might not return.
With them in mind, she smiled, noting simply, "I'm not alone in being misjudged."