Paying the Price for an Act of Conscience

THEY made a mistake when they put Randy Kehler in jail.

He and his wife, Betsy Corner, have refused to pay their federal income taxes for the past 14 years because, in his words, "we must choose between knowingly and willingly paying for war ... and openly and nonviolently breaking the law. Our consciences compel us to choose the latter." So each April they have written a letter to the Internal Revenue Service explaining why they can't in good conscience pay their taxes. Then they have donated an equal amount to organizations assisting war victims and the poo r.

Last December, they experienced the long-delayed consequences of their decision. The IRS had seized title to Mr. Kehler and Ms. Corner's rural Massachusetts farmhouse in 1989 and tried to sell it at auction to recover $32,000 in back taxes. But they found no buyers at any price; Betsy and Randy's supporters had successfully persuaded potential purchasers not to cross the line of conscience. After many months of uncertainty, federal authorities served an eviction notice on Nov. 22.

But Randy, Betsy, and their 12-year-old daughter Lillian didn't evacuate. When federal marshals arrived to arrest him on the morning of Dec. 4, Randy was alone in the house. The family had already been alerted by their devoted network of supporters in the neighborhood. Conscious that this might be his last moment in the home that had sheltered his family for 13 years, he sat down at the piano to calm his pulsing heart. The marshals found him playing Bach-Gounod's "Ave Maria" on the family's weathered upr ight. Abashed, perhaps even a little ashamed, they stood silently by while Randy finished the piece. Then they handcuffed his wrists and hauled him off to court.

United States District Judge Frank Freedman was not amused. When Kehler tried to state why he had defied the eviction order, the judge quickly cut him off and demanded that he promise he would never again occupy his home. When Kehler declined, Judge Freedman summarily sentenced him to six months in prison for contempt of court.

Sitting in the Hampshire County jail, Randy put to paper the thoughts Freedman had forbidden him to say aloud. It is a document whose cadences and commitment to principle stand with the classic prison statements of now-famous dissidents in altogether different times and places - Vaclav Havel, Andrei Sakharov, and most hauntingly, Martin Luther King Jr. in his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." Citing the United Nations Charter, Geneva Conventions, and Nuremberg Principles, Kehler argued that "the first o bligation of responsible citizenship is obedience to one's conscience."

His words and actions carry added impact (and irony) by virtue of his background as a Brahmin and Boy Scout, one who had enjoyed all the advantages a privileged status affords and yet came to question the justice of that social order. A Yankee born and bred, he is both charismatic and introspective, part Paul Revere, part Henry Thoreau. Raised in upper-middle-class ease in Scarsdale, N.Y., and educated at Exeter and Harvard, he came to believe in a now nearly vanished ethos of moral rectitude and libera l Republicanism.

But while at Harvard, he began working with the poor in Boston, and later in Tanzania. Spearheading the nuclear-freeze movement of the early '80s, he grew far beyond his roots. Yet he retains a deliberate naivete, refusing to surrender the belief that governments sometimes act with conscience and not simply with cynicism, and that if they fail to do so, their citizens can ultimately force them to.

In the end, he insists, each of us must take personal responsibility for national policies: "The choices we make as individuals will determine the choices we make as a nation."

In refusing to pay their "war taxes," Randy and Betsy focus our attention on the most direct influence citizens can exercise on the policies of governments. It is a power that governments recognize, and rightly fear. "Let them protest as much as they like," Gen. Alexander Haig is reported to have said, "just so long as they keep paying their taxes." But what if they don't? What if just a few don't, and their example inspires others to do something, too, even if not that something? At what point does mora l witness become political power?

Randy is once again free, having been released when federal authorities finally found a buyer for the house. A couple in their 20s with a two-month-old child bought the place for $5,400. Since the purchase, Randy and the mother have had long talks. "If I had only known...," she says regretfully, expressing a certain sympathy for their position.

Meanwhile, a steady procession of supporters has occupied the farmhouse since the morning after the eviction - neighbors and strangers, groups from Boston, Brattleboro, Oregon, and California, taking time from their lives to express their own convictions.

But the most touching experience for Randy was his last night in jail. His 10 weeks there had been more arduous than any 10 weeks of the two years he spent in federal prison for draft resistance in the early '70s. On that last evening, he had no idea he would soon be released. He was anxious, facing the auction of his home the next morning and the probable arrest of his friends inside.

Then, to his surprise, eight prisoners from the cellblock converged on his cramped cell with a contraband candle in hand. "You've been listening to our troubles for a long while now," they told hin, "and we haven't listened much to yours. We want you to know that we really care what happens to you." With that, they joined hands, lit the candle, and stood in prayer.

Indeed, the authorities made a big mistake when they put Randy Kehler in jail. Conscience is contagious. And the fastest way to spread it is to try to stamp it out.

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