The Politics of Salvation: II

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, last February and March, Father Philip Berrigan, Sister Elizabeth McAlister, and five other antiwar activists stood trial on charges of conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger, blow up heating ducts in Washington, DC, and vandalize Selective Service boards. The government’s case against this predominantly Catholic group relied almost exclusively on conversations reported by the FBI informer Boyd Douglas, a convict with an extraordinary record of lying, violence, and evasion; and on the correspondence exchanged at Lewisburg prison between Elizabeth McAlister and Philip. Berrigan which Boyd Douglas had passed on to the FBI.

Douglas was serving three concurrent five-year sentences for forgery and armed assault and had only been released from maximum to medium security in the spring of 1969. Six months later, under mysterious circumstances which lead me to believe that Douglas had been an informer for much longer than the government admitted in court, he was the only member of Lewisburg prison’s 1,400-man population to be allowed into the student release program at nearby Bucknell University.

Many perplexing questions about the government’s infiltration of the Catholic left and of Bucknell remained unanswered at the trial’s end, which were further obscured by the defense’s surprising decision to rest without calling any witnesses. One of the most troubling of these questions is how Philip Berrigan, his friends, and many other persons outside Lewisburg prison came to trust Boyd Douglas so blindly. I see this trust as a phenomenon of the 1960s, rising from that sympathy for the dispossessed that has marked the conscience of American liberals since the nascence of the civil rights movement.

The compassion of liberals for the oppressed, like other emotions that flow out of guilt, can easily degenerate into sentimentalism. With a denial of free will that is ironically Calvinistic, Catholic leftists as well as others have tended to see all criminals as helpless victims whose actions are irreversibly conditioned by the nature of the American environment, and therefore beyond moral judgment. The apotheosis of the dispossessed that characterized the 1960s—and the concurrent fatalism that puts all blame on the society—has taken a particularly irrational turn when prisoners are in question. One hears the slogan “all prisoners are political prisoners,” accompanied by the axiom that Charles Manson, Sirhan B. Sirhan, and Lee Harvey Oswald have the same moral and political status as Philip Berrigan because they are equally “oppressed.”

This peculiarly American state of mind helps to explain why a student-convict like Boyd Douglas, a prisoner given a suspicious degree of freedom, who perpetually wore dark glasses and often drank and talked with the Bucknell crowd until 10 PM before returning to his cell, a man recollected as having no particular intelligence or wit, and frequently compared to “an Appalachian trying to be hip,” could have been taken into confidence by a motley group of students, teachers, activists, and priests. To them Douglas readily impersonated the fervent Movement convert with the same panache with which he had …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.