Peace Crimes: comments by Jennifer Taylor and Russell Goldflam

The power of ordinary people

Comments by Jennifer Taylor at the launch of Peace Crimes by Kieran Finnane, Anzac Hill, August 1, 2020.

I acknowledge Mr Stephens and Mr Wallace, and all Arrernte elders of the past and future. I thank you for the privilege of meeting here in magnificent Arrernte country. I acknowledge that this country was never ceded by Arrernte people – not the town and the hill we stand on today, nor the land where Pine Gap base has been built.

Kieran Finnane’s book Peace Crimes is an enormous achievement. A spooky silence often prevails around Pine Gap. Kieran’s book stands in contradiction to that silence. She takes the intellectual and political position that the functioning of the military facility at Pine Gap, and agreements between Australian and US governments, should be out in the open.

She has analysed swathes of technical information about the Base’s role in facilitating high-tech warfare. She confronts the part it plays in lethal, illegal drone strikes against citizens of countries with whom Australia is not at war, and the human consequences of this lawlessness.

She explores the motivations and methods of the Peace Pilgrims – what led to their actions at Pine Gap, and to their trial for trespass, under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act. With care and clarity she unpacks the trial. We see how the law is applied in this instance of what she wryly calls ‘a reckless act of prayer’.

She does this without preaching, or shying away from difficult material. Her approach is connected, clear, inclusive, and above all, compassionate. Her extraordinary commitment to writing this book stands to benefit us all, by amplifying the pilgrims’ message and carrying it further.

This is a book on a mission. It invites you to engage with the stories of the Pilgrims’ lives and actions. You find you want to know: ‘Who are these people? What do they have to say to me? Seeing how they live, how might I live my life?’

How does this book do so much, weave all these strands together? The book’s content, the way it is organised, and its purpose are skilfully braided. Strands of experience, analysis, and reflection are woven together into a new, more complete story about violence, and lives dedicated to peaceful resistance to violence.

Here are some of the strands:

  • the multicoloured threads of the pilgrims’ lives, their faith and principles, their activist predecessors, their music, imagery and language, their grief, courage and determination
  • The philosophy and practice of non-violent direct action
  • Kieran’s own family and community ties, her deep reflections.
  • The continuum of destruction of Aboriginal lives, livelihoods, language and culture from Frontier Wars through to today.
  • The wars in which Pine Gap has played a part, from Vietnam onwards.

Readers will find many different places to land – many points of connection relating to their own stories. For me the book prompted memories of the environmental actions of the 1980’s: Terania Creek; Franklin Dam; the Daintree road. Also of the womens’ collectives helping women prepare for NVDA at Roxby Downs, the Women for Survival Peace Camp at Pine Gap in 1983, Lucas Heights, Cockburn Sound, Jabiluka, Anzac Day protests and other actions.

The Pilgrims’ stories reminded me how with NVDA, activists choose to be exposed to harm, to be vulnerable, to experience in their own bodies the power of the small and ordinary, the power of standing together, of care and nurture, and the power to refuse violence.

In a Women for Survival newsletter from 1983 I found these favourite lines from Judy Grahn:

‘the common woman is as common as the best of bread

and will rise’.

Words echoed by Peace Pilgrim Margaret Pestorious as she insists she does ‘all those ordinary things that ordinary people do’ – ‘putting my ordinary little body on the line’.

‘… being a non-violent activist is about disruption, stopping harms, facing up, witnessing, speaking truth to power’.

This book will have done its work when ordinary people who read it find their own ways to take action on the issues that move them most, whether that means anti-racism work, climate action, protecting country, strengthening culture and community, working for food and water security, standing for office, making music, lamenting our losses, or creating images or texts that, like this one, acclaim life and inspire change.


The light and the dark

Comments by Rusell Goldflam at the launch of Peace Crimes by Kieran Finnane, Anzac Hill, August 1, 2020.

For five decades, the rallying cry of the protest movement against the space base, as it’s locally known, has been “Close Pine Gap”. Somewhat paradoxically, though, one of the key objectives of that movement has been to open Pine Gap, to shed light on what it actually does. And at its shining heart, that’s the achievement of Kieran Finnane’s book, Peace Crimes: Pine Gap, national security and dissent. It sheds light.

This should be no surprise. After all, as a journalist, that’s Finnane’s job: to observe, to inquire, to dig down into dark places, and to illuminate them. And there’s no darker, deeper place around here than Pine Gap.

Finnane could have written a whole book just about that darkness, the dark business of what Pine Gap does and how it does it: about shadowy networks of hovering geostationary satellites; about covert committees meeting in closed rooms to decide where to focus antennas so as to suck up all manner of electronic data and eavesdrop on whoever, wherever they choose; about Pine Gap’s key role in carrying out extrajudicial terminations – or to use plainer language, murders – by targeting drone strikes in places we’ve never heard of, assassinating people whose names we’ll never hear.

About how thanks to the embarrassingly supine compliance and complicity of successive Australian governments with the United States military apparatus, Pine Gap has entangled us all in a radically dangerous geopolitical game, dicing with arbitrary death and mass destruction. Finnane has indeed documented all these things here, and she does so with admirable clarity, concision and precision, but peering into the darkness through the cracks in the formidable edifice of secrecy that conceals Pine Gap isn’t what this book is really about. If it were, a better title might have been “War Crimes”, not “Peace Crimes”.

No, what grips Finnane and what she comes to grips with after penetrating that dark matter, is the most gripping part of this book, the bright bit, the bit where the light gets into the crack that is in everything, the Leonard Cohen line quoted in the closing address to an Alice Springs jury sitting in that overweening, gleaming space capsule of a courthouse, near the end of the Supreme Court trials of the Peace Pilgrims, the perpetrators of the “peace crimes” this book is named for.

Finnane carefully and methodically describes how on 28 September 2016, five of the Peace Pilgrims walked into the Pine Gap prohibited area. She also describes how on the same night, a drone strike authorised by President Obama killed fifteen people in the village of Shadal in the Achin district of Nangahar province, Afghanistan. According to the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, most and perhaps all of the victims were civilians. According to Washington, they were all terrorists. As they explained to the jury in their trial a little over a year later, the Peace Pilgrims entered Pine Gap to disrupt the operations of the base in order to stop civilians being murdered by drone strikes like the one on the village of Shadal that night. The Peace Pilgrims said that they did what they did for a simple, fundamental reason. It was necessary.

I dare say that most people, whether they support or oppose Pine Gap, assume that the Peace Pilgrims are fruitcakes and even nutjobs, casually dismissing them as “weirdos”. That indeed is what I thought when I first heard about them.  Finnane conscientiously and compellingly dismantles that prejudiced and prejudicial caricature, and draws us in to the quiet, committed, rigorous, loving world of Margaret, Jim, Franz, Andy, Tim and Paul.

Over a period spanning 12 years, I got to know them and their fellow Christian activists, the Pine Gap Four, who had undertaken a similar action in 2005, in my capacity as their intermittent solicitor, and in that capacity I discovered that actually, they are the very opposite of weird. There’s nothing at all uncanny about them. Indeed, as courtroom tacticians, they were very canny indeed. Finnane deftly describes, with thinly disguised delight, how they made the QCs who’d been flown in from interstate at taxpayer expense to prosecute them flounder and squirm.

The Pine Gap Four eventually had their convictions overturned thanks to some even cleverer QCs who flew in from interstate (at their own expense) to help out. In 2017, the Peace Pilgrims couldn’t and didn’t avoid conviction (because in the interim, the Commonwealth Parliament had amended the law to plug the gap the cleverer QCs had exposed).

I say “couldn’t avoid conviction” because unlike juries in England, the United States and New Zealand, no Australian jury has ever been defiant and independent enough to ignore a judge’s directions and acquit after being instructed that no legally available defence has been raised by the accused in a civil disobedience case like this. The Australian citizenry is unusually compliant.

But the Peace Pilgrims, without a lawyer to represent them in their trial, did something that had never been done before, not even by the Pine Gap Four: they opened Pine Gap, by persuading the trial judge to allow the jury to hear evidence from experts about what Pine Gap actually does, including an extraordinary interview with the late Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in which he explained why the base needs to be shut down. Finnane documents, day by day, how the Peace Pilgrims found a crack, and, millimetre by millimetre, prised it open, just enough to allow the light to trickle in.

That isn’t weird. It’s wonderful. It is also extremely rare. Governments go to a great deal of trouble to try to ensure that the legal system does not allow civilly disobedient citizens to prise open cracks in this way. Who knows where this sort of thing might lead?

This is a remarkable story that needs telling. And we are fortunate that such a remarkably clear-eyed, sharp-eyed, unflinchingly far-sighted member of our community has taken the trouble to tell it for us. Thank you, Kieran.