A moral war over weapons
Part One of Two
Published August 21, 2004 Minneapolis StarTribune

By Jeremy Iggers, StarTribune

The following news item seemed like good material for columns about the ethics of civil disobedience and corporate responsibility: On July 30, four peace activists, including Mike Miles, Green Party candidate for Congress from Luck, Wis., were arrested for trespassing at the headquarters of Alliant Techsystems in Edina. The four had tried to make an appointment to talk to Alliant executives about the company's role in manufacturing weapons that contain depleted uranium, and were arrested when they refused to leave. [note: actual date was July 28.]

The visit was necessary, Miles later told me, because the company refused to respond to letters or phone calls requesting a meeting.

Civil disobedience raises interesting ethical issues: How does breaking the law in order to express opposition to laws or policies that one believes to be morally wrong harm or benefit society? What ethical boundaries do people accept when they choose to act outside the law?

The group from Nukewatch and Anathoth Community Farm from Luck Wisconsin prior to being arrested on July 28 at Alliant Techsystem's front door.
–image © CircleVision.org
My initial plan was to contact Miles and ask him how he justified his act of civil disobedience, and then contact Alliant, and find out how they deal with the ethical issues surrounding the manufacture and sale of deadly weapons. But, it turns out, Miles doesn't consider what he did to be civil disobedience - at least, not technically; and second, Alliant seems to have little interest in discussing the ethics of weapons manufacture - with Mike Miles, me or anybody else.

Miles says that the protesters' actions were justified under an old Common Law doctrine called Claim of Right, which says that actions that may otherwise be illegal
can be justified when they are necessary to uphold other laws - in this case, international treaties governing weapons of war. Miles says the use of depleted uranium violates these treaties.

"We are trying to send an alarm that these weapons are so dangerous that they have to be banned," Miles told me. "They are not only poisoning people in the countries where we are trying to help them, but they are also poisoning American troops who are using the weapons, and the use of these weapons is poisoning America's reputation around the world."

Depleted uranium is used to make armor-piercing munitions that explode, creating a toxic radioactive dust. The details of the issue are too complicated to explore here, but experts disagree about whether depleted uranium munitions pose a significant health hazard. The Defense Department says they have found no evidence that depleted uranium has caused illness in veterans exposed to it, while opponents say it is linked to numerous cases of illness among Gulf War veterans and to increased rates of birth defects among Iraqi children. There does seem to be widespread agreement for more research.

The evidence may not be conclusive, but even the possibility that depleted uranium may be harming civilians and U.S. troops raises ethical issues for companies that produce it. It seems reasonable to ask what efforts, if any, Alliant has made to explore the evidence, and what ethical standards it sets for itself in deciding what kinds of munitions to produce.

Says Miles: "During the Nuremburg trials, one of the important things that came out was that not only were individuals prosecuted, but German companies were prosecuted. What Nuremberg established is that it is not an excuse to say 'we were just following orders.' IG Farben was found guilty because they manufactured [the poisonous gas] Zyklon B. We attempted to warn Alliant that somewhere along the line, you could find yourself in the same position. Saying we were just following orders, or we were just filling a contract is not an excuse."

Miles and his co-defendants will appear in Hennepin County District Court on Wednesday. If convicted, they could face a fine, and/or 90 days to six months in jail. Previous jury trials in Alliant trespass cases have resulted in some convictions and some acquittals. But in the most recent jury trial, held in October, a six-member Hennepin County jury acquitted 19 defendants of trespassing. They argued that the manufacture and sale of weapons containing depleted uranium is illegal under international treaties.

Next week, we will look at how Alliant responded to the issues that Mike Miles and his fellow activists raised.

Jeremy Iggers via email.

© copywrite 2004 Minneapolis StarTribune


Part two - click here
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