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Santa Maria Sun / Commentary

The following article was posted on December 17th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 41 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 41

A road runs through it

Whose authority is paramount: civil or military?


When it comes to the value of property, Realtors tell us it’s all about “location, location, location.” On Dec. 4, the U.S. Supreme Court put that proverbial maxim to the test in its hearing of oral arguments in U.S. vs. John Dennis Apel.

The value of the land at stake in U.S. vs. John Dennis Apel has nothing to do with proximity to quaint shops or leafy streets, although considerations like “curbside appearance” and access to public schools were raised in the case’s briefing. It’s more weighty matters that are held in the balance in the quarrel between the case’s appellants, the Obama Administration and the Pentagon, and its defendant, a scruffy, resolute man whose self-imposed poverty as a “Catholic worker” would disqualify him from purchasing real estate in virtually any neighborhood.

That’s not to say, however, that Mr. Apel doesn’t try to hold his ground.

John Dennis Apel was arrested at Vandenberg Air Force Base while protesting against nuclear and space-based weaponry. The base’s property includes some of the most spectacular ocean-view acreage on the Central Coast of California. In fact, Mr. Apel was arrested while standing on the shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1), which crosses Vandenberg’s property. It was the very location where he was arrested that landed Mr. Apel’s case in the Supreme Court.

The base commander barred Mr. Apel from stopping on Highway 1 at Vandenberg for committing two symbolic acts of civil disobedience during his earlier protest on the base. In 2003, Mr. Apel poured his own blood on the wall and sign at the main gate of the base to protest the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq—which he felt was unjustified. He was sent to prison for two months for this “vandalism”—which was cleaned up with soap and water in minutes. Then during a protest in 2007, he violated military regulations by walking off Highway 1 onto the entrance road that leads up to the inner security gate.

Air Force security officers later arrested Mr. Apel at Vandenberg for trespassing under a federal statute (18 USC 1382) when he returned to the base to protest after being barred. Mr. Apel was convicted in a U.S. district court. His conviction was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Then the U.S. Solicitor General and lead attorney for the Pentagon successfully petitioned the Supreme Court for a review in the case.

Mr. Apel argues that the Air Force violated the First Amendment of the Constitution by arresting him while he was peacefully protesting on Highway 1, a public street. Indeed, the United States has long held that its citizens have the right to assemble and freely express themselves on public streets.

But the case is complicated because Highway 1 is open to the public on Vandenberg property by virtue of an easement the military has granted to the state of California. Mr. Apel also argues that the public easement precludes trespassing because the military does not “exclusively possess” the property on the roadway.

The Obama Administration and Pentagon contend that the base commander’s authority to ban citizens from a military installation extends even onto military property that is under a public road easement. They also assert that concern for base security constitutes a compelling interest that supersedes the right to free speech on public roads that traverse military installations.

The military at Vandenberg has painted a green line on the pavement in front of its main gate to demark the boundary of the public road easement of Highway 1. The viewpoint on the opposing arguments in U.S. vs. John Dennis Apel very much depends on which side of the “military line” one stands.

Military commanders have a pressing responsibility to protect the personnel and property on their bases. There is much to protect at Vandenberg. The base is the test site for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) used to deliver nuclear warheads. The base is also an important site for the development of the anti-missile defense system that “theoretically” will intercept nuclear missiles fired at the United States.

On the other hand, U.S. citizens have a right to express criticism of military operations and policy—and there is much to criticize concerning the mission of Vandenberg Air Force Base. The value of exorbitantly expensive, nuclear defense systems is highly questionable. So is the base commander’s assertion that John Dennis Apel’s protest constitutes a threat to national security.

Mr. Apel was arrested outside the main gate at Vandenberg, even though he was standing peacefully in a spot that is under the close watch of Air Force security forces. Yet the military turns a blind eye toward the traffic on the highway on which Mr. Apel stood. The Air Force allows people with violent criminal backgrounds, as well as hazardous cargos in trucks, to travel unimpeded along the entire course of Highway 1 on its property.

In a similar way, the military would have U.S. citizens turn a blind eye toward the questionable efficacy of the nuclear defense systems against which Mr. Apel protests. While the utility of nuclear weapons was doubtful even during the Cold War era, the circumstances in which the United States would use them against an opponent are unimaginable today. Such weapons serve no purpose in the fight against terror: the leading security challenge that faces the United States. In fact, the maintenance of nuclear weapons is arguably counterproductive for this concern, because it increases the odds that terrorists will eventually obtain one.

So why does the United States continue to maintain and modernize its nuclear weapons systems? We can turn to the words of Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell speech as U.S. president for an answer.

Eisenhower led the American military through the most devastating and widespread war in modern history. He led our nation as president in the heart of the Cold War. Yet Eisenhower offered this warning for future generations of Americans as he left the White House:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Foundation, the United States expended $685 billion on its national defense in 2012, which equated to 39 percent of all defense spending in the world that year. Those are telling numbers given that the United States only has 4.5 percent of the world’s population. Ike—who ironically also had a thing for highways, pushing the Federal-Aid Highway Act through Congress in 1956 that created our modern interstate highway system—must be scowling down from on high upon the country he so bravely served.

It is only the myriad interests forming the American military industrial complex that gain from our nuclear defense systems. These interests remain, while presidential administrations and Congresses come and go. Their mantra is an ever expanding and intrusive concern for national security, which might be justified at times, but also contrived at other times, as in the supposed threat from a quiet man holding a peace sign on the shoulder of a highway.

In the oral hearing for U.S. vs. John Dennis Apel, questions fired from the bench of the Supreme Court at Erwin Chemerinsky—dean of the U.C. Irvine Law School who serves as counsel for John Dennis Apel—suggested that the national security mantra has enchanted several of our nation’s top justices. This was especially evident for Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito, whose queries revealed a deep-seated deference for the discretion of the U.S. military on public roads traversing its property, and lesser concern for the free speech protections of U.S. citizens who use them.

By the arguments of U.S. vs. John Dennis Apel, U.S. citizens might question which trumps which in our American society today: civil or military authority.

The high court will most likely publish its decision in the case in late spring of 2014.


Scott Fina lives in Santa Maria. Send comments to the executive editor at

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