From Voices for Creative Nonviolence

Voices in the Wilderness Delegate Dennis Apel’s Sentencing Statement from Vandenberg Witness Trial

Defendants Dennis Apel, Jeff Dietrich, Fr. Louie Vitale, OFM, represented by Kate Chatfield, and Fr. Steve Kelly, SJ, in pro per, stood before Magistrate Rita Coyne-Federman for sentencing for their nonviolent witness on May 19, 2007. The the probation department issued the following sentence recommendation to the court: Dennis Apel-30 day home confinement plus 30 days probation – no fine. Jeff Dietrich-4 months incarceration plus $1000 fine plus $35 court costs. Fr. Louie Vitale-5 months incarceration plus $1000 fine plus $35 court costs. Fr. Steve Kelly-6 months incarceration plus $1000 fine plus $35 court costs.

However, after hearing statements from defense attorney Kate Chatfield, the military JAG (judge-advocate general) and all defendants, Magistrate Rita Coyne-Federman stated that the charges did not warrant jail time. She imposed the following sentences: Dennis Apel-$2500 fine plus $35 court costs. Jeff Dietrich-$1000 fine plus $35 court costs. Fr. Louie Vitale-$500 fine plus $35 court costs. Fr. Steve Kelly-$1000 fine plus $35 court costs. All defendants stated their refusal to pay the fines and court costs. The court did not respond. All defendants have until May 12, 2009 to submit payment. No further court appearance was scheduled.

Here’s the statement Dennis Apel made to the court:

In May of 1998 I went to Iraq to take medicines to Children’s hospitals. To go was an act of civil disobedience, breaking the sanctions against that country and risking the possibility of up to a one million dollar fine and 12 years in prison. But the United Nations was reporting that 5,000 children a month were dying because of lack of medicines banned by the sanctions. So I ignored the law and I went.

When a group of eight of us arrived at the first children’s hospital in Baghdad, the lobby of the hospital was so full of women with their children waiting to be seen that we had to squeeze our way between them to get to the room where we were to be briefed on the conditions of the hospital. One of the women in our group collapsed from the shear hopelessness of that initial scene.

When we were led to the emergency room, I was shocked to see rows of beds lining the walls of a huge room with two or three sick or dying children on each bed. While mothers attended their children, I took pictures as fast as I could, hoping to capture the scene. On one particular bed sat a young mother cross-legged with an infant in her lap. She looked at me weeping and shouted something in Arabic. At my request, the doctor who accompanied me translated, “She says you come here, you take pictures and you go home…but nothing changes.”

When I returned to the United States I related this and so many more stories to anyone who would listen. I talked to Church groups and colleges. I spoke on radio and television programs. I was interviewed by the local paper and I sent mailings out to everyone I knew. A group of us met with Lois Capps, our elected representative, and with bishops and church leaders. But, in the end, the woman was right….nothing changed.

I have stood in the “designated protest area “ at Vandenberg Air Force Base now well over 100 times in the past 12 years. I go almost religiously once a month with a small group of peace-loving and justice-seeking folks to voice our objection to the mission of that Base and its complicity in the terrorizing of humanity by testing delivery systems for nuclear weapons. Twice in those twelve years, I have been arrested and convicted of trespassing for crossing the green line. The first time was in 2003 five days before our government added the obscenity of “shock and awe” to the sin of 11 years of brutal sanctions in Iraq. The second was now almost two years ago when I and three others refused to step back on the “safe” side of the green line without our brothers and sisters in the military who are knowingly or not, or willingly or not, part of the enforcement arm of the policies that, among untold other stories of suffering and death, put that young and desperate mother and her dying infant on that bed in a Baghdad hospital.

The green line at Vandenberg is used for only one purpose. The visitor center, the parking lot, the public bus stop are all on the other side of the green line and the area is open to anyone who doesn’t overtly disagree with the mission of the Base or our government’s policies. Be quiet and you can be on the other side of the green line. The green line serves to mark the point beyond which certain truths are no longer allowed.

You can’t see it, but there is a green line in our courtrooms as well. It’s called “in limine” and it also marks the point beyond which certain truths cannot be spoken. In my case the prosecutor can, and makes it a point to, state without objections my motivations for what I do. “He’s just looking for attention,” she will say. “He wanted to get arrested and he did,” she will say. But if I try to explain my motivations the prosecutor is quick to jump in, “Objection your honor…relevance.” My motivations are clearly only hers to define.

And the limits of allowing for a defense of necessity or breach of International Law or the Nuremberg Principles are so tightly defined that literally not one case of civil disobedience in the United States in opposition to everything from illegal war, to torture, to kidnapping and extraordinary rendition has been allowed such a defense.

We are, all of us, knowingly or not, or willingly or not, caught up in a system that affords greater authority and a louder voice to laws that blockade the truth than to the voice of those suffering and dying. There are those who would have responded to the challenge of a grieving mother in a Baghdad hospital by saying, “I’ll vote for someone else in the next election,” and would have felt satisfied, but I am not one of them. Because, if it were me holding my dying son or daughter, I would have been equally desperate and felt at least as much disdain for the powerlessness of the person documenting my suffering with a camera.

My deep conviction is that love supersedes the law, and while I don’t claim to be an expert at when love requires one to break the law, if opposing what we’ve visited on Iraq in the past 19 years is not it, I don’t know what is. I am neither an anarchist nor one who disagrees with the need for accountability to laws. But laws that perpetuate injustice or protect those who would cause untold suffering are so counter to the law of love, that to allow them to remain unchallenged requires that we relinquish love itself which is ultimately our only hope for justice and peace. And I’m not ready yet to give up hope.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak a little truth before sentencing, but I look forward to the day when “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” are included in the process before consideration of the verdict. In the meantime, a mother’s voice was heard one more time in this courtroom and I’m thankful for that, and to the court for your time and attention.


  1. We have not only the death of Osama as a backdrop, we have the beatification of Blessed John Paul, a man who prayed tirelessly for peace.

    I'm thinking of the lines of Vernon Watkins now (Dylan Thomas's friend, fellow poet, and countryman, 1906-67):

    If in the ritual
    Of vengeance we live,
    We make perpetual
    Our failure to forgive

    I admit I succumbed to the fervor of the moment upon learning of the death of Osama bin Laden. I'm certainly not in mourning for him. Not in the least! But I do think we need to be reflective, too. Are we going to have an eruption of national braggadocio — and in some cases that I've seen, partisan braggadocio (Obama got him! Bush couldn't!) — without pausing to ask ourselves about the purpose and cost of our several wars — in dollars, but more importantly, in lives? And are we not making more enemies than we're ridding ourselves of? Is it something akin to the hydra, where we've cut off one head, but nine more grow in its place?

    It might be cowardice on my part, but I have to say I don't have all the answers. I admire the fierce integrity of the Catholic Workers, their unswerving dedication to the ideal of peace, their willingness to criticize both major parties. I can't decide if they're prophetic or a little off the rails, but I have to admire their willingness to go to jail for what they believe in.

    This is my long-winded and confused way of saying, Thank you for this post. You've given us something to think about, and to pray over.

  2. Thanks, Dylan, that is just the thing about nonviolence: it requires moving forward in vulnerability and uncertainty, never being sure what we're doing is "right" but knowing we are always right to proceed in purity of heart and as much love as we can muster…

  3. Anonymous says: Reply

    Thanks for this. I was horrified by the explosion of joy at the execution of Osama bin Laden–not because I thought him a righteous man, but because violence begets violence, and as Christians we have been given a COMPLETELY different method. I found this incredible WASHINGTON POST article "How the Pope 'Defeated Communism' by Anne Applebaum,Wednesday, April 6, 2005; Page A19 and realized it was no accident that JPII was beatified the day before!

  4. Thank you so much for this straight-ahead piece from Anne Applebaum–she so gets at Catholicism as catholicism: "When I lived in Poland in the late 1980s, I was told that if I wanted to know what was going on, I'd have to go every week to a particular Warsaw church and pick up a copy of the city's weekly underground newspaper. Equally, if I wanted to see an exhibition of paintings that were not the work of the regime's artists, or a play that was not approved by the regime's censors, I could go to an exhibition or a performance in a church basement. The priests didn't write the newspapers, or paint the paintings, or act in the plays — none of which were necessarily religious — but they made their space and resources available for the people who did. And in helping to create what we now call "civil society," these priests were following the example of the pope [at the time John Paul II] who, as a young man in Nazi-occupied Poland, secretly studied for the priesthood and also founded an underground theater."

  5. To the anonymous reader who posted about pride–I accidentally deleted both your comment and mine: forgive me.

    My main thought is that federal judges don't stand in for God. No civil authority stands in for God. If that were so, we would have to say that the SS stood in for God, that Pinochet and Stalin and Pol Pot stood in for God. God is of course unknowable but I hope we can agree that he is very very much larger than the United States government.

    As Catholics we are very clearly called to follow our deepest conscience, even if it means breaking the civil law, in order to follow Christ. Because the fact is–and we do know this–Christ was resolutely, unerringly, consistently, in every situation against all vengeance-based violence. We know this, too: our economy, politics and culture RUN on vengeance-based violence.

    Vengeance-based violence is so much the air we breathe that we don't even see it! We don't see the irony and the violence in leaving an anonymous comment accusing others of pride!

    To show one's face and offer one's name; to act by one's best lights in accordance with the teachings, life, death, and Resurrection of Christ; and to be willing to suffer the consequences, as Dennis Apel and his friends did at Vandenberg, strikes me not as pride, but as courage, humility and love.

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