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It has become popular in recent years to designate any non-mainstream political activity as “terrorism.” Activity as widely disparate as marching in the streets, holding placards and chanting, sitting in trees to prevent logging, and vandalism have all been put on par with the actions of al Qaeda on September 11th, 2001. Since that fatal day, such normal political actions (vandalism notwithstanding) undertaken by normal Americans-that protected political speech that we supposedly hold so dear and must defend from extremists-has been legally restricted, criminalized, and actively suppressed.
Political actions on behalf of the environment that have involved property destruction or trespassing have been widespread-from California to Colorado to Indiana to New York-by people acting on their own and those associated with groups such as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), Earth First!, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), among others. Some have targeted new housing developments, others have opposed commercial projects. The activists have ranged from the 23 year old Julia Butterfly Hill who sat in an old-growth redwood tree for two years to keep it from being harvested for timber to the 42 year old John Quigley who quietly sat in 200 year old oak tree in Los Angeles County for 70 days to protect it from being cut down for a housing development.
The response by authorities has largely been to engage in grandstanding and suppression, and is most clear in the state of Oregon, which has become a hotbed of activity by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which has claimed responsibility for property damage in many locations across the state. There have also been several arrests. One activist, who is 5 years in to a 23 year mandatory-minimum sentence for the arson of an SUV sales lot resulting in damages of less than $50,000, said “I am not a terrorist. I am a man guided by my conscience.” But being guided by your conscience towards property destruction is terrorism, at least according to the FBI, whose definition of terrorism is so broad it, well, strikes terror into the hearts of ACLU members. Terrorism, the FBI says, is the “unlawful use of force or violence, committed by a group of two or more individuals, against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” But individuals have been targeted, as have been loose affiliations and organized groups. So does that make the Watergate break-in terrorism? How about police brutality in the war on drugs? What about jaywalking while wearing a campaign button?
Further elision is shown by Oregon’s Douglas County Sheriff in a speech to the Roseburg Chamber of Commerce, where he equated members of ELF, ALF, and all “anarchists” as terrorists: “There is definitely a place for peaceful and productive demonstrationsbut this is no Boston Tea Party, this is not a Martin Luther King activity, this is terrorism.” Of course, today the activists who dumped tea in the Boston harbor in 1773 would be branded terrorists for such blatant actions of property destruction. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been a terrorist under the FBI’s definition.
But what is property destruction? Is it violence? Most people probably think so, but they should rethink this stance. Violence against people is different than violence against things, and groups such as ELF specifically avoid any and all violence against people. I may feel violated when someone scratches my car with their keys or writes graffiti on the fence in the alley. But this is a far cry from assaulting my body. One is violent, the other is merely rude. Treating them as the same thing actually devalues human life and any violence directed at it.
But many in power do not seem to understand the difference between truly terrorizing a population by threatening their lives as compared to making a political statement through property destruction. Such an argument apparently is lost on the ears of officials like US Representative Scott McInnis (R-Colo) who in March of 2002 equated ELF to al Qaeda.
This tempest of labeling is not the exclusive province of Sheriffs, Congressmen, or ambitious District Attorneys; even public citizens have joined the bandwagon. Rodolphe Streichenberger wants to line the ocean floor off of the California coast with old tires in an effort to “plant the sea” and grow a “marine forest” which he hopes can help “feed the world.” The California Coastal Commission took exception to what they view as not much more than dumping trash in the ocean, and the case has gone to court. What is it that the Coast Commission is up to, according to Streichenberger? Why it’s “eco-terrorism” of course.
So called “eco-terrorism” is the flavor of the month in northern California, where three arson incidents have provoked authorities to declare the activists “eco-terrorists.” US Magistrate Judge Peter Nowinski, at one defendant’s bail hearing declared that the 21-year old had “betrayed” his parents and “will betray them again.” So much for the suspension of bias: if a judge can make such a sweeping declaration without hearing a whit of trial evidence, a fair trial seems unlikely. Ryan Lewis, the defendant, has of course been categorized as an eco-terrorist-that is, a threat to domestic security.
Be afraid, everyone. Be very, very afraid. Or that is what the media and the politicians want of you.
But we should not be afraid of young people who feel strongly that the destruction of the earth in the name of “development” or “progress” is wrong, and attempt take action to draw attention to perceived abuses of the environment in the only way they know how. No, we should see this as an appeal, as a cry for attention. When people feel strongly enough about a political issue to destroy property, they clearly are not being heard-they feel that they have no voice through normal, approved political channels.
What we should really be afraid of are those purveyors of fear that propagate irresponsible, politically motivated labels. Calling Ryan Lewis-and so many others-“eco-terrorists” contributes to our understanding that the enemy is everywhere, that we are unsafe at every turn. Such fear is functional for those who hold political power. If the citizenry is afraid, if they think that they might be subject to attack at any moment, then they will be compliant in the face of shrinking civil liberties and expanding defense budgets. If we do not resist such attempts to curtail fundamental rights, then we truly do not deserve what the founders of the nation saw as the goal of the American Revolution: freedom from tyranny. As Benjamin Franklin so aptly put it: “They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security.”
When we label individual political speech and action using a category as broad as “terrorism” we do a disservice to ourselves and honest political communication. Terrorism needs to be taken seriously, to be sure. The threats to national security cannot be underestimated. But certainly we must recognize that Americans themselves hold some responsibility in this realm. A set of 1991 Defense Department documents disclosed by Thomas Nagy in the September 2001 issue of The Progressive magazine showed that US forces undertook a program of violence in Iraq that specifically targeted civilian water and sanitation facilities. The Pentagon identified water treatment plants and delivery systems for bombing with the full knowledge that this would cause illness and death to normal Iraqi civilians. Is this not terrorism? Can Americans abide such action in our names? Certainly not. Terrorism is a term that cannot be used loosely, and must be confined to specific and well-defined actions, whether they are by governments (yes, even the US and Israel), government-sponsored groups (such as those financed by Syria or Libya), or non-governmental organizations such as al Qaeda. Calling kids from Oregon and California “eco-terrorists” simply serves to distract us from the real terrorists. What Lewis allegedly did was certainly criminal, and we have given our justice system the legitimate authority to punish such acts. But the political identification of such behavior as being the same as the intentional harm of innocent citizens is irresponsible and abhorrent. Those who pander to the public and whip up a culture of fear are to be resisted with all our might.
KEVIN WEHR is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the California State University at Sacramento, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.