Elizabeth McAlister is a complex woman, as deeply secretive by nature as she is indiscreet on occasion. It was incredible to learn that none of the defendants knew of her correspondence with Philip Berrigan—the major material evidence of the Harrisburg trial—until several weeks after the indictment, eight months after the correspondence had occurred. The letters, and the use of Douglas as courier, were the plot within the plot of the Harrisburg case. The nun’s and priest’s need to be secretive about their communications may be a mark of their profound conventionalism, part of their attempt to reconcile their affection to the very rigorous attitude they have always held toward their religious vows. This tension of secrecy—and Elizabeth’s desire to boost Philip Berrigan’s morale—may also be responsible for the vast distortions and overstatements contained in Elizabeth’s letters. Their exaggerations seem motivated by her need to buttress Philip’s sense of retaining power in the Movement, and to reassure him about the Movement’s vigor at a time when it was actually in failing health.
Elizabeth’s most flagrant and incriminating exaggeration, of course, was her description of a colloquy concerning the possibility of making a citizen’s arrest of Henry Kissinger. This bizarre conversation seems to have been hatched in the Third World fantasies of the radical Pakistani scholar Eqbal Ahmad. But, according to Ahmad, it was “one of a dozen alternatives discussed and rejected during the course of a long evening, a preposterous idea which would have been totally counterproductive because it had no political context in American history.”
The discussion was held during a long session of wining and dining in Westport, Connecticut, in mid-August, a few days after Daniel Berrigan’s arrest by the FBI, and must be seen against the background of renewed passion and anguish caused by the capture of the priest, who had been Ahmad’s closest friend at Cornell. Writing to Philip the next day in this aura of urgency and grief, and needing somehow to assure him that novel tactics of escalation were being aired, Elizabeth put a magnifying glass on a twenty-minute discussion of a citizen’s arrest. She devoted an entire letter to this grotesque colloquy, which was to lead to the most sensational charge of the Harrisburg indictment.
In her mention of the idea of kidnaping Kissinger, as in the rest of her letters, Elizabeth’s style is musing, as if she were talking out loud. In this case already gorged with fantasies, her letters feed on still another fantasy: She is pretending not to write, she believes she is talking to him, she does not face the reality of the letter as a physical document.
However, conversation, as frequently happens, swiftly becomes gossip. As she tries to cheer Philip with news of his troops’ good health, she tends to become the Louella Parsons of the Movement. Within the span of two letters she drops the names of William Kunstler, Noam Chomsky, Eugene McCarthy, Rosemary Reuther, Howard Zinn, Douglas Dowd, Stewart Meacham, Richard Falk (“with us all the way”), Jacques Ellul of France, Congressman William Anderson, a dozen noncooperative Jesuits (“they drive you to drink”), and William Stringfellow, among others. (“Stringfellow…is part of Bruv’s next move” is the sentence that led the FBI to apprehend Daniel Berrigan at Stringfellow’s home on Block Island.)
She gives news from all over: “Tarrytown kids developed into nothing.” Boston: “Moving ahead on some long range work on Honeywell and continuing as selective service boot camp for new people.” Rochester: “Don’t think Rochester is a dead issue” (the participants of that city’s “Flower City Conspiracy,” with Boyd Douglas’s help, would be apprehended at the scene of the raid). She announces a recent success in the same businesslike style in which she wrote convent reports, the previous year, when she was secretary to the provincial of her order. “Ann Walsh came in last night and announced New Haven had been done the night before. It took a maximum of two weeks, $200, and no one else knew it was happening until it was done. Good, clean, efficient job. All were delighted.”
The description of the Delaware action, which was initially complicated by a participant who insisted on bringing along his mother, his girlfriend, his boyfriend, and a dog to the event, is formidable in its cool, cops-and-robbers style. In it she also describes her frustration at not being able to “do” the Wilmington board, which was closely watched. “…someone returns with a report that the marshall (armed) as well as the guard is in the bldg…. That board had to be done…. The Philly kids—a beautiful group—were anxious to see it done and would help but our people had first option…. Judy [another RSHM nun] and I went into the Board. Were there hiding for two hours. Finally a blast from Davidson over the walkie talkie: ‘What the f– are you doing there…?’ …I said to Judy—let’s leave. So we marched out like we owned the place and exchanged time of day with guards….”
She signs some of her letters, as he does, “In His love.” Another time, she commemorates the day of their first meeting: “Hey, buddy, the 15th is coming fast. First met a real great guy on August 15th.”
William Lynch read some forty-five pages of the letters in such a flat, dreary monotone that some jurors slept through many passages, waking up to hear Boyd Douglas’s cool interspersed testimony. But when Lynch came to the following letter his voice became in turn modulated, dramatic, booming. Everyone sat up and listened. It was like a parish priest reading the Epistle after having finished his financial report:
From Elizabeth: “…Which leads me to No. 3 and this is in utter confidence and should not be committed to paper and I would want you not even to say a word of it to Dan until we have a fuller grasp of it…. Eq called us up to Conn. last night…. Eq outlined a plan for action which would say—escalated seriousness—and we discussed the pros and cons for several hours. It needs much more thought and careful selection of personnel. To kidnap—in our terminology make a citizen’s arrest—someone like Henry Kissinger….”
In the same hortatory voice, Lynch read Philip’s reply:
“About the plan—the first time opens the door to murder—the Tupamaros are finding that out in Uruguay…. When I refer to murder it is not to prohibit it absolutely (violence versus non-violence bag) it is merely to observe that one has set the precedent, and that later on, when gov’t resistance to this sort of thing stiffens, men will be killed. More to the point, the project as you outlined it is brilliant, but grandiose….”
“The first motto you are taught when you join a guerrilla cadre in Algeria,” Eqbal Ahmad laconically comments about the Berrigan-McAlister letters, “is the following: ‘Quand tu es en prison, tu ne demandes que des oranges.’ For every guerrilla knows that no system of unauthorized prison communication is safe. You are at the mercy of blackmail. You are like a Moslem wife caught in bed with another man.”
“It takes much revolutionary discipline,” Eqbal adds with a polite ironical smile, “to resist the temptation of asking for more than oranges.”
William Sebastian Lynch, the government prosecutor, had been looking forward with trepidation to cross-examining the defendants. He once described Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister as people who were “constitutionally incapable of not taking the stand.” “You just wait until Liz and Phil take the stand!” he muttered, off the cuff, to a reporter he had met in a Harrisburg diner.
When Ramsey Clark rose to rest the defense, starting with the words “These defendants will always seek peace,” Lynch jumped to his feet, arms flailing in James Cagney style, to make an objection to what he thought was going to be a political statement. “Your honor, the defense rests,” Clark concluded simply. Lynch fell back into his seat with a soft thud. Judge R. Dixon Herman emitted an embarrassed “heh, heh,” the first and only time he laughed in two months. He had earlier stressed several times that “this is not a funny trial.”
The defense’s astonishing announcement to rest the case without further testimony was a highly unusual legal maneuver which, according to the lawyers, has no precedent in political cases. The main purpose of resting the defense was to stress the preposterous, phantasmagoric nature of the government’s charges. Ramsey Clark’s soft voice carried, calmly and dramatically, the message of “not guilty.” In its element of surprise and of pacifism the gesture was similar to that moment at Catonsville when the defendants rose one by one to address the Court and then linked hands to say the Lord’s Prayer.
But unlike the Catonsville Nine, the Harrisburg Seven were not concerned with symbols, but with acquittal. There were many concrete legal motives for resting their case—a decision arrived at only in the last four days of the government’s prosecution. The defense sensed that it was at the peak of its strength after the government presented its last witness. This flimsy case forced upon the Justice Department by the vindictive fantasies of the late J. Edgar Hoover was ex-extraordinarily lacking in evidence. It had already been greatly weakened when over twenty antiwar activists—whose information the government relied upon to build its case—had followed the courageous example of Sister Jogues Egan, and refused to testify to the Grand Jury. Moreover, many government witnesses who took the stand at the trial sounded like witnesses for the defense. On the tunnel charge they testified to the existence of meandering discussions which could never be interpreted as concrete agreements.
The only hard-core evidence of the ephemeral kidnaping charge, a tape on which the informer Boyd Douglas identified Eqbal Ahmad’s voice, had been disqualified by the Court. As for Boyd Douglas, the defense lawyers felt that their powerful cross-examination of the informer had destroyed his credibility, and they wished to leave their demolition work freshly imprinted on the jury’s mind.
There was another crucial political reason for resting the defense: to deter the government from trying to elicit the names of numerous antiwar activists whose role in the disruption of the Selective Service system, in the sheltering of Daniel Berrigan, and in other illegal actions had never been disclosed. Paul O’Dwyer estimates that some 200 persons might have been implicated in the government’s cross-examination of the defendants and of defense witnesses. Persons being questioned by Lynch would have had either to incriminate a large network of the antiwar resistance or to take the Fifth Amendment, which in the punitive atmosphere of Judge Herman’s courtroom would undoubtedly have resulted in their going to jail. To produce defense witnesses at Harrisburg would have created a highly charged emotional aura, a rebellious Chicago Seven atmosphere not conducive to acquittal by the cautious, provincial Harrisburg jury. And it could have opened a Pandora’s box of cautiously guarded Movement secrets which would have had grave and widespread consequences.