Civil Disobedience, The Movie

A new documentary film, The Camden 28, tells the true story of 28 anti-Vietnam War activists who broke into the federal building in Camden, NJ in 1971, with the goal of removing and destroying draft records, thereby hampering the war effort. They were tried and . . . SPOILER ALERT . . . acquitted. The film uses interviews of the principals, including attorneys and the FBI agent on the case, and while it lets everyone have his or her say, it's pretty clearly sympathetic to the cause of the Camden 28. Except at the very end, no express link is drawn to opposition to the Iraq War.

The Camden 28 trial was highly unusual in that the judge permitted the defendants to put on what amounted to a nullification/justification defense. The defendants showed slides of the carnage in Vietnam, even though that was not relevant to any element of or legally permissible defense to the charge. The defense attorney explains in the film that he figured about half the jurors would vote to acquit on simple nullification grounds, whereas the other half would need some hook. The hook was the government involvement---through an informant/participant---in the planning and execution of the break-in. Although insufficient as a matter of law to establish an entrapment defense (because planning of the operation began before the informant joined the plot), the judge instructed the jury that it could acquit based on government involvement if it found this to be outrageous government conduct.

There is no gainsaying the idealism and courage of the Camden 28, but it's not at all clear to me that the film is right to laud the judge's decision to permit them to use the case as a forum for anti-war views. Many (it's not clear from the film how many) of the Camden 28 are Catholics, including 4 priests, who were clearly motivated by their disgust with the disrespect for life that the Vietnam War represented to them. Several of the Camden 28 spoke expressly about "life," and it is easy to imagine that some number of them are also pro-life in the sense of opposed to legal abortion. Even if that's not true of any of the Camden 28, it certainly could be true of other idealistic, courageous individuals. So suppose that a pro-life group decided to break into an abortion clinic and destroy its medical equipment. Should they be permitted to display pictures of dead fetuses as part of their defense? In a criminal conspiracy trial against the Klan or an al Qaeda cell, should the defendants be entitled to an acquittal on the ground that their organization had been thoroughly infiltrated by the FBI? Isn't that what we WANT the FBI to do?

In part the Camden 28 are sympathetic because of their commitment to non-violence. They carefully cased the federal building to ensure that no one would be there when they broke in, but in fact there were guards there (because of the informant), and a misunderstanding could have led to violence. I don't want to say that the perspective of the film (or of the Camden 28 themselves) is necessarily wrong, but it would have been a still stronger film had it grappled with the dangerous consequences of permitting defendants to make their guilt or innocence depend on the justice of their underlying cause, or more likely, the particular jury's perception of the justice of their cause.