Arson as Political Speech

On Martin Luther King Day, 17 people were arrested in Kitsap County for blocking an entrance to the Bangor Submarine Base. When the trial comes, prosecutors hope to exclude from the courtroom discussion of the protesters' motivations, international law, or the "necessity" defense. The government wishes to keep court procedures narrowly focused on whether these people committed the crimes of which they're accused—not why. This is fairly standard for civil disobedience cases.

"Ecoterrorists" are treated differently.

In 2001, Eugene activist Jeff Luers was sentenced to an astonishing 23 years in prison for torching three pickups, which he did, Luers said, because they emitted too much pollution. It was the longest sentence ever given for "ecoterrorism." In handing down the sentence, the judge specifically cited Luers' political motivations and the judge's desire to set a precedent to dissuade other activists from similar acts. Needless to say, someone out for a bit of everyday malicious vandalism would have gotten a fraction of Luers' sentence.

The same sort of thing, on a much grander scale, is likely the fate of 11 activists indicted Thursday, Jan. 19, on 65 counts of conspiracy and other charges, based on 17 fires set across the West from 1996 to 2001. Most of the indicted have ties to Eugene. The fires, including the 1997 torching of a Redmond horse slaughterhouse and a 2001 arson at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture, also targeted research labs, ranger stations, lumber companies, a high-tension power line, and a ski area. The government estimates $100 million in damage. Press releases attributed the fires to either the Earth Liberation Front or the Animal Liberation Front, two related movements that are more ideology than actual organizations.

If the hyperbole from U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is any guide, the activists will be in prison for much, much longer than any arsonist motivated by insurance scam, revenge, or pyromania. Unlike the Kitsap demonstrators, they will be punished much more aggressively specifically because their motives were political.

Why? Because it's very, very useful for the government to label these folks "domestic terrorists" or "ecoterrorists" rather than what they are: activists whose fanaticism led them to actions that didn't physically injure anyone, didn't truly "terrorize" anyone, but, as with any arson, inconvenienced, saddened, and enraged the people connected to the torched buildings and objects. Don't make these folks out to be more than what they are. Their actions didn't resemble a holy war so much as a sustained, destructive tantrum.

Regardless of whether or not one approves of property destruction in service of a higher cause, it's hard not to notice how tactically pointless these fires were. They didn't stop any of the targeted research or exploitation of the natural world: Facilities were repaired or rebuilt, insurance companies generally picked up the cost, and life went on. At the UW horticulture center, the professor whose genetic modification work drew the activists' ire had copies of his research stored off-site. It's hard to imagine anyone won over to the firebugs' ideology as a result of their handiwork. Quite the opposite is true; especially in Red State America, where much of our country's remaining natural beauty lies, critics use these crimes as a way to paint all environmentalists or animal-rights advocates as dangerous wackos. Exploiting industries could scarcely wish for a more convenient scapegoat.

As the widespread use of the label "ecoterrorist" suggests, the government loves this sort of thing. As with another Eugene export, the anarchists who smashed windows during the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle, these fires legitimized for many an overreaching persecution of all activists by law enforcement. During WTO, even though the tear gas began well before the window breaking, the property destruction made police abuses and a martial-law "no protest zone" appropriate in the eyes of much of the public. Today, programs like the Pentagon's counterintelligence TALON unit, which has gathered the names of thousands of peaceful antiwar protesters and other activists (like the Kitsap arrestees), get funded because some general or some Justice Department or White House lackey can point to the threat of "domestic terrorists." And now the feds have 11 of them to showcase.

It's all very, very useful. This is why, when law enforcement infiltrates activist groups—whether it was the Industrial Workers of the World a century ago, peaceniks in the 1960s, or animal-rights groups today—often as not, they encourage the group or its members to engage in property destruction. It's a means to an end: the discrediting of citizen activism, and the further expansion of state power.

For every environmentalist or animal-rights activist who engages in these tactics, there are thousands, perhaps millions, who do not. That's because such tactics are not only destructive but foolhardy. But that's no reason to let the government scapegoat these 11. Do they deserve extensive jail time if found guilty? Absolutely. But they don't deserve to rot in jail for the rest of their lives, or to be whisked off to some offshore gulag. They are idealistic fools, but they are not terrorists.

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