Before the Smoke Even Clears in Seattle: Bringing Out the T-Word

Multi-million dollar mansions in a Seattle suburb–each about 4,200-4,750 square feet, going for about $2 million a pop, touted as “green”– were burned Monday. About $7 million in damage on the “Street of Dreams.”Nobody injured, nobody home. But before the smoke had even settled,before the ashes had even cooled, before the Feds had even sorted through the debris, a chant of “Terrorists! Terrorists! Terrorists!” had started rising from politicians, corporations and, most disturbingly, the press.

Most reporters couldn’t even hold off on using the T-word until the second paragraph. The New York Times headline? “Ecoterrorism Suspectedin House Fires in Seattle Suburb.” The Telegraph: “Arson attack on green homes by eco terrorists.” The Los Angeles Times photo caption: “An act of terrorism?”

Vested corporate and political interests are revving up the “War on Terrorism” PR-mobile, sexifying and terrorfying a property crime story,and they’re doing it brilliantly. But reporters would do well toremember, regardless of how you feel about the moral or politicalimplications of arson as a tactic, regardless of how you feel aboutclassifying property crimes as “terrorism,” regardless of how you feel about global warming or suburban sprawl or any environmental issue, we still don’t even know the facts. It’s truly shocking–and, after writing about these issues for years, it’s getting harder and harder for this stuff to elicit any surprise–that the press has so boldly proclaimedthese suspected crimes as “terrorism” based on off-the-cuff speculation of law enforcement.

Raising Doubts

So far the only evidence of “eco-terrorism” has been a bed sheet left atthe scene, hanging on a fence. In spray-painted block letters: “Builtgreen? Nope Black!” and “McMansions + R.C.D.’s r not green.” [”R.C.D.’s”are “rural cluster developments.”] The sheet also had the letters“E.L.F.” presumably the call sign of the Earth Liberation Front. TheTimes noted that banners have been left at other ELF arsons, too. Butthat doesn’t mean squat. Remember the pet shop owner who burned down hisown store, animals included, and spray painted that it was done by theALF? Or the bomb scare at an animal testing lab, where the feds shouted “Terrorism!” and got the wrong guy? Or, better yet, have reporters forgotten a nearly identical incident in2004, when luxury homes in Maryland burned down, everyone shouted“eco-terrorism,” and then OOPS it turns out to be a group of guys withpersonal vendettas or out for kicks. Among them, a security guard forthe subdivision, a member of the volunteer fire department, and somepals, all car-racing aficionados. Not an “eco-terrorist” in the bunch. It’s simply irresponsible to begin tossing around these terms, andattribute the crime, authoritatively and definitely, without concreteevidence. It’s a dangerous path for journalists to swallow the soundbites of the FBI so willingly, so gleefully. Eli Sanders of The Stranger raised a very interesting point along theselines, from her “architect friend.”

“There’s a part of me that suspects that it was actually just an insurance job. Here’s why: The ‘Street of Dreams’ was in June. And not asingle house has sold yet. Each one is about $2M. And the market is only getting worse. If I were a developer… a $7M insurance payout would help a lot.”

Cops, fire chiefs and the Feds don’t have their stories straight yet.The Associated Press reported, “Crews removed incendiary devices foundin the homes, Snohomish County District 7 Fire Chief Rick Eastman said.Later, however, Kelvin Crenshaw, special agent in charge of the Bureauof Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Seattle, said there was no evidence such devices had been used.”

A lack of evidence hasn’t stopped FBI agent Dave Gomez from not only attributing the fires to “eco-terrorists,” but determining what the Elves were thinking. The Washington Post ran a story from Elizabeth M.Gillespie that said:

“FBI agent Dave Gomez theorized that those responsible might have chosen not to use any incendiary devices to avoid long sentences if they everstood trial. Using a destructive device during a federal offense carriesa mandatory 30-year sentence, Gomez said, ‘so whoever committed this crime may have been cognizant of that.’”
Again contradicting previous “official statements,” the fires werestarted with “available combustibles” (perhaps paper or wood) and not incendiary devices. Gillespie also notes that investigators had yet to enter the two damaged homes.

Meanwhile Rick Eastman, the fire chief, told The LA Times: “It was clear the fires were deliberately set.” Eastman let the blazes burn and did not send in firefighters because, the LA Times reports, “he feared thehomes might be booby-trapped.”

It’s not clear what, exactly, gave him this impression, because to datenot one ELF action–even the most extreme, and potentially dangerouscrimes like arsons–has harmed a human being. And to my knowledge, havingspoken with former ELF and ALF press officers, there’s never been a“booby-trapped” arson to harm firefighters. What use are facts, though, with such a sexy story?

Stacking the Deck

The government is trying to stack the deck here. They’re labeling crimeslike this as terrorism before they have started investigating and before they’ve even talked to a suspect, because it immediately skews the oddsin their favor. If someone is arrested for this crime–whether an environmentalist or another insurance scammer–how could they ever get afair trial? What’s worse, as we can see from the comments of FBI Agent Gomez, the government is already setting the foundation for another story: “These eco-terrorists are cunning, they’re getting around existing laws andtrying to get reduced sentences. We need more terrorism laws! We needmore surveillance powers! We need more more more!”

The “eco-terrorism” buzz comes as a jury in Tacoma deliberates the case of Briana Waters. A mother, a violin teacher, Waters is accused of serving as a lookout during a 2001 arson at the University of Washington. The Earth Liberation Front targeted the horticulture center for what they thought was genetic engineering of poplar trees. Robert Bloom, her lawyer, requested that the judge declare a mistrial, because the “eco-terrorism” buzz of the trials would surely influence the jury against his client. For instance, in 2001, environmentalists set fire to the Romania Truck Center in Eugene, OR as lawyers prepared for the trial of Jeffrey “Free” Luers. Luers was charged with arson at the same truck center, in 2000. That probably wasn’t the best idea: the judge hit back with a 22-year sentence for Luers. There has been no communiqué connecting this week’s arsons to Briana Waters, rhetorically or otherwise, but that doesn’t mean the crimes will not have an impact, as she faces 35 years in prison. The judge has rejected her attorney’s request.

Waters has a lot on the line right now, as the only remaining “Operation Backfire” defendant fighting the charges and maintaining her innocence.In Oregon, other individuals wrapped up in the same government sweep of environmental activists were hit with “terrorism enhancement” penalties for their crimes. Many turned state’s evidence, or cooperators, or snitches, whichever you prefer, and a few held out for Monica Hesse,“Greed in the Name of Green: To Worshipers of Consumption: Spending Won’t Save the Earth.” Hesse writes:
“Congregation of the Church of the Holy Organic, let us buy. “Let us buy Anna Sova Luxury Organics Turkish towels, 900 grams persquare meter, $58 a piece. Let us buy the eco-friendly 600-thread-countbed sheets, milled in Switzerland with U.S. cotton, $570 for queen-size. “Let us purge our closets of those sinful synthetics, purify ourselves in the flame of the soy candle at the altar of the immaculate Earth Weave rug, and let us buy, buy, buy until we are whipped into a beatific froth of free-range fulfillment.

“And let us never consider the other organic option — not buying —because the new green consumer wants to consume…”
When many environmentalists I spoke to first heard about these crimes, destroying luxury homes that were luxurious but also built “green,” they said they cringed. Not only will this be labeled terrorism, they thought, but any shred of information about the environment will get lost in the frenzy. People just won’t get it. Surprisingly, some have had to eat their words.

From the New York Times:

“’Stick it to the man!’ Mr. Olsen said when told who claimed responsibility for the fires. “I’m not supportive of those tactics but there’s been far too much development.’ He added, speaking of the development, ‘Nobody wanted it.’”

From the LA Times:

“…Loren, seemed concerned about the rapid pace of development in the area, known for its stables and boutique wineries.

“’I don’t feel sorry for the developer,” he said, beginning a long gripe about over-development and ‘cheap pressboard materials.’”People are fed up. And I’m not just talking about “eco-terrorists” taking drastic action in the name of the environment. I’m talking about everyday people who are fed up with the green washing, fed up with the spinning of environmental passions for corporate profit. And, perhaps most importantly, fed up with the reckless push to label people as “terrorists,” fed up with the domestic spying and terrorism enhancements and grand juries and arrests, fed up with the greening of the never-ending War on Terrorism.

WILL POTTER is an award-winning independent journalist who focuses on how lawmakers and corporations have labeled animal rights and environmental activists as “eco-terrorists.” Will has written for publications including the Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News and Legal Affairs, and has testified before the U.S. Congress about his reporting. He is the creator of, where he writes about the Green Scare and history repeating itself.