Send in the Clown

Last month, a small group of protesters gathered on the traffic island outside Aurora's Buckley Air Force Base. It was an unseasonably warm day, and a gusty wind had suddenly materialized out of nowhere. The demonstrators, some of them in their sixties and seventies, narrowed their eyes against the swirling grit and struggled to hold aloft banners bearing such slogans as "U.S. military in space: Undemocratic, Immoral, Irrational" and "The heavens are for wonder - not for warfare." The weedy strip, buffeted by the wind and the roar of traffic, felt earthbound and far from the starry mysteries of the heavens.

While the protesters maintained their vigil, local and national officials gathered on the base itself to commemorate the transfer of Buckley from the Colorado Air National Guard, which has maintained the air base for forty years, to the Air Force. With its numerous "radomes," or satellite dishes, Buckley will have an important role in the coming decades as the Air Force shifts more resources toward military operations in space. The satellite dishes, six of which are covered in a protective material and resemble huge golf balls, download data from satellites that circle the globe; the data is then organized and analyzed by Buckley's Aerospace Data Facility. Air Force officials refuse to discuss specifics about the kind of data downloaded, the number of satellite dishes located on the base, or what other national intelligence agencies are involved at Buckley. But Loring Wirbel, who oversees the Electronic Engineering Times, says Buckley is "the largest consolidated intelligence base in the western hemisphere for joint use of the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Security Agency."

Overseeing Buckley will be the United States Space Command, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. According to an Air Force brochure titled "Vision for 2020," the U.S. Space Command intends to militarily dominate space within the next two decades to ensure that "U.S. interests and investment" will be adequately protected. The demonstrators maintain that not only is that goal immoral, but it's highly questionable given the collaboration between the taxpayer-supported military and America's most powerful corporations. Furthermore, they say, the stated goal violates the Outer Space Treaty signed by the United States and numerous other countries in 1967. That treaty, which was reaffirmed in 1999 by all of the original signers except the U.S. and Israel, states that space belongs to all mankind and should be used for peaceful purposes rather than the military goals of any one nation.

Although the issues have far-reaching consequences, the demonstration drew little interest from motorists. Still, the mood was upbeat, even festive, largely because of the commanding presence of two of the participants: Carl Kabat, a Catholic priest who has spent the last fourteen years in jail because of his nonviolent civil protests against nuclear weapons, and Bill Sulzman, a former Denver priest who runs the Colorado Springs-based Citizens for Peace in Space. Later, at Denny's, the two gulp down glasses of iced tea and laugh with such pleasure that they draw curious glances from people in nearby booths. Was the response to the protest worth two hours of standing in the hot sun? "We're required to be faithful, not successful," Kabat says. "I learned a long time ago to do what you can do, then sing and dance."

With his reddened face and huge, calloused hands, the Reverend Kabat resembles not so much a man of the cloth as a retired prizefighter. He still plays basketball, and not too long ago, he was the over-35 champion of Minnesota's Sandstone Federal Prison. But the years are beginning to catch up with him. His wispy white hair sticks up all over, and his right eye, a watery blue, is virtually useless because of a botched medical procedure. Recently he celebrated his 67th birthday. Instead of looking forward to a comfortable retirement, Kabat is facing one of the toughest ordeals of his long career: He is on the verge of being dismissed from his order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, for disobeying orders and heading to Colorado for another protest -- an action that could land him in jail again.

Bill Strabala, a retired Denver journalist who has known Kabat since his seminary days, says that because Kabat has taken a vow of poverty, that dismissal will most likely mean that he'll join the ranks of the homeless and destitute. "To many Americans, Catholic or not, Carl is a morally justified hero, a man acting as any priest should, out of deep moral and religious conviction," Strabala says. "Carl is a Martin Luther King of our church."

The seeds of rebellion were planted early, perhaps when Carl Kabat was a boy back in Scheller, Illinois, sitting on the hard wooden pews and listening to the local priest drone on about money. Fifty-two Sundays a year, the priest talked about money. The sermons were devoid of spiritual sustenance, and Kabat vowed that when he became a priest, he would talk about something other than money.

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Eileen Welsome