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Karleton Armstrong


By Seth M. Kupferberg

ON AUGUST 1970, a group of people planted a bomb in the University of Wisconsin's Army Mathematics Research Center. When the bomb went off, early in the morning, a researcher working late was killed, and people across the United States were shocked and horrified. Most people who shared the bombers's opposition to American policy in Indochina said that they should still have worked in a non-violent way. When The Crimson ran an article called "In Defense of Terrorism," most readers disapproved, and David S. Landes, professor of History, called the article atrocious in a letter to the editors.

Eventually the police caught up with some of the people who bombed the Army Mathematics Research Center, and their leader, a graduate student named Karleton Armstrong, was brought back from Canada to face trial. Some of his comrades--including David Fine, who was 17 when he helped plan the bombing--are still at large, but Armstrong pleaded guilty to second degree murder. In exchange for the guilty plea, the judge agreed not to rule a political defense out of order. Accordingly, defense witnesses spoke about what the United States had done to Vietnam and about the contributions of the Army Mathematics Research Center to doing it. Former Marines told about atrocities they'd witnessed or taken part in. Antiwar activists spoke about the effects of the war on the Vietnamese people. Daniel Ellsberg '52 sent a tape recording. At the end of the trial, the judge sentenced Armstrong to 25 years in prison, the maximum sentence.

I wish that Armstrong were free. In part, this is an emotional response to his courage and hatred of the war.

BUT I THINK there's also a rational argument for freeing Armstrong.

We're taught from the time we're children that in a democracy, political decisions are made by the people's elected representatives. If we find the decisions unsatisfactory, we are told, we should try to change them by electoral means. Civil disobedience is discouraged. Blowing up buildings is frowned upon. Blowing up buildings with researchers inside them is regarded as the lowest form of moral degradation. It attracts considerably more vocal and more widespread condemnation than imperialist wars that leave people by the thousands dead, wounded and homeless.

For most kinds of political decisions, what we're taught is a good rule, even though people with a lot of property have more to do with choosing and influencing the elected representatives than other people. That smoking marijuana a should be legal doesn't justify blowing up a cigarette factory with all its workers inside. That money needed for mass transit goes instead to building highways doesn't justify putting studs on snow tires. It doesn't even justify withholding taxes--even if the highways are entirely useless--if elected representatives have a right to vote taxes at all.

But if elected representatives apply the taxes to killing innocent people, that's another matter. A majority vote doesn't stop killing from being wrong or absolve the people who do it of blame. A million murderers who band together are still a million murderers and if it is right to resist injustice, it is right to resist injustice committed by a group. If it is right to try to stop a thug from beating up an old lady, it is right to try to stop a million or 200 million voters from killing distant but equally helpless old ladies.

Of course, there are nonviolent, legal methods of trying to stop them. You can write to your representatives. You can join the American Civil Liberties Union. You can even put a bumper sticker on your car. All these ways of trying to stop 200 million voters from killing old ladies are legitimate. But they take time. For most forms of political agitation, this is all right. If in ten years the government decides it prefers mass transit to highways, it will just divert its funds away from the highways. But when the United States decided early this year that it was going to stop killing Vietnamese--contenting itself with giving General Thieu enough money and weapons to go on killing them himself--that didn't bring the old ladies it had killed back to life. A killing can't be reversed on reconsideration. That is why actions taken to stop killing, or to slow down its rate, or to hinder the killers, aren't in the same category as actions taken for many other political purposes.

If the German people had freely voted to send Jews to death camps, it would still have been right for a German to blow up the railroad bridge used for transporting them there. And it might still have been right even if there was a chance that an innocent engineer working late might go up with the bridge.

Of course, the German people didn't freely vote to send Jews to death camps. No people has ever freely voted for genocide on that scale. But free majorities have often supported atrocious enough practices for long enough periods of time, and been willing to accept the practices even after they saw that they were wrong. Most Americans in the first half of the 19th century accepted slavery, just as most Americans in the first half of the 1960s supported the Indochina war. In each case, there was a saving remnant which did not accept its part in such crimes. and there were a few people--John Brown and Karleton Armstrong, for example--who felt they had to do all they could to stop them, even if they ran a risk of injuring or even killing people who might be innocent.

They were like people doing what they could to stop a thug from beating up an old lady, risking injury to the thug or some innocent passerby in the fracas. Or like a policeman pursuing a homicidal maniac at 100 miles per hour, knowing the chase could end in an accident dangerous to unknowing uninvolved pedestrians. Or like a mechanic inserting a wrench into the gears of an airplane loaded with bombs, aware that he and the bombadier and the pilot might die so that the innocent children the bombs would have killed could live.

THERE ARE people in this country whose bombs killed not just one man but tens of thousands of men, women, and children: soldiers in their jungles, old men in their fields, babies in their cradles. One of these bombers is president of the United States. Until he's tried--not even just for subverting American democracy, but for what he did to Indochina--jailing Armstrong is a mockery of justice, like arresting someone for breaking a flowerpot with his head. But responsibility for Indochina doesn't end with Nixon. The blood of one and a half million people and the suffering of millions more stains the hands of the taxpayers whose money financed the war. Maybe David Dellinger could consistently condemn the violence of Armstrong's battle against the assembled power of the United States. But Dellinger, a lifelong pacifist who would never set off bombs himself, makes a distinction between massive, repressive violence like the terror bombing of Indochina and violent resistance to that sort of repression, like the National Liberation Front's or, presumably, Armstrong's. He's like William Lloyd Garrison, a lifelong anarchist who didn't disapprove of other people's voting for antislavery parties. Each person must oppose injustice and violence according to his own nature, Dellinger and Garrison implied. Some with broadsides and some with ballots, some with bumper stickers and some with bombs.

THIS IS WHY I think Karleton Armstrong should go free. There are also at least two reasons why it's important not to forget him. First, because he's a reminder of other things, things it is easy to forget even when they're in the newspapers every day. The people who were more shocked at antiwar students shouting down prowar speakers than at what was happening in Indochina were forgetting what was in the newspapers every day. I think I have been more concerned with the nobility of my compassion--what the English poet Jon Stallworthy called wearing suffering like a service medal--than with ending the suffering, which might have meant acting like Armstrong, or Dellinger, or at least Noam Chomsky.

There are still atrocities going on in Vietnam, and they're still financed by the United States, which pays 70 to 80 per cent of General Thieu's budget in direct aid. That pays for Thieu's jails, where 100,000 political prisoners are kept and on occasion tortured in various picturesque ways, and for the year-old "peace" which Thieu's probably-understated figures say has killed 50,000 Vietnamese already. Armstrong is a reminder of Thieu's prisoners, and of all the world's prisoners forced to do things they don't like by systems and times they didn't choose.

But the second reason for remembering him may be even more important. Karleton Armstrong's not just a symbol. He's a real person, condemned to spend the next 25 years in prison. For 25 years--maybe less, if he gets parole--he can't go out to watch the leaves change color in the fall, or have a heterosexual love affair, or drop in on a friend when the whim seizes him, or listen to the birds in the morning to make sure it's really spring.

Of course, he killed someone, and that person can't do these things now either. But it was an accidental killing in a struggle to stop much greater killing--and no one can prove that it wasn't successful, that it didn't retard the Army's research enough to save a Vietnamese person's life. Ultimately, Armstrong is in prison because he took his responsibilities as a citizen in a murderous country seriously. He should go free.

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