Christmas is different for us this year. The decorations are still in storage. The tree is still waiting to be picked out. The family Christmas letter never got written. Instead of spreading holiday cheer, we are keeping vigil. Our son, Jamie, is spending Christmas in federal prison.
Last March, on the day our war on Iraq began, he linked arms with two fellow Haverford College students, and blocked the entrance to the Federal Building in Philadelphia . He had thought long and hard about his action beforehand. He had joined the protests, he had written letters, he had organized, he had agonized. He had taken his right of redress as far as he could. But for Jamie, it was not enough. The morning the war began, he wrote me a letter saying that if American soldiers were willing to put their lives on the line for what they believe in, then he was willing to put his freedom on the line. He was arrested peacefully, and one of his classmates downloaded digital photos to us of the procedure, from beginning to end. He looked so small, the young women at his side even smaller, as the phalanx of police led him away.
His court date was put off until it finally came this December 4th, Jamie’s birthday. He called us and chuckled about this irony. Unlike most of his activist companions, he had made up his mind that he would not pay the fine. We sent him a check, and pleaded with him simply to pay it, and walk away. He tore up the check, and called us to say his protest mea nt greater sacrifices were necessary. He told the federal judge who presided over his case he was more than willing to do community service as a penance. Ignoring his request, the judge sentenced him to a week in prison.
That week began at noon this past Thursday and will end on Christmas Day. He is in solitary confinement, 24 hour lock-up. As parents, we are heartsick. As Americans, we are outraged. This war, trumped up on so many false pretexts, has already exacted too many sacrifices, American lives, Iraqi lives. But until now, as for the vast majority of the citizenry, this was a distant, escapable reality. The war for us has come home this week. We feel in our very bones the losses in the homes of thousands of other families, for whom Christmas will never be the same. And added now is our sense of loss for our country, diminished by how it treats dissent, minority opinion, due process, and freedom of speech.
But there is, too, a flicker of hope. Just before he submitted himself to the Federal Detention Center in downtown Philadelphia , Jamie sent out this email: "I am aware now more than ever of the invisible circles of love and light we live in. It is to you my friends and blood that I am responsible. My prayer for all of you this week will be that this witness somehow crystallizes your vision of a world more just, peaceful, and true."
For his parents keeping vigil, it is our Christmas prayer as well.
Stephen V. Smith
Westwood , Massachusetts , USA