'Eco-' Isn't the Issue; 'Terrorism' Isby Editors
The Missoulian, January 29, 2006
Hard-line approach maintains useful distinction between "activism" and "terrorism."
Federal authorities recently indicted 11 people in the Northwest in connection with a series of "eco-terrorism" crimes, ranging from sabotage of a Bonneville Power Administration powerline to arson attacks on a lumber mill, houses and a slaughterhouse. Three additional people were arrested in California last week as they prepared to test homemade explosives federal authorities say may have been intended for a fish hatchery or Forest Service tree genetics laboratory.
Authorities say the attacks are part of a "vast eco-terrorism conspiracy" involving the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, shadowy groups that have claimed responsibility for millions of dollars in crimes over several years.
Whether prosecutors can prove these allegations in court remains to be seen. But we certainly will cheer them on as they work to stamp out the violent perversion of environmental defense.
Some news media accounts carelessly described the defendants as "environmental activists." They're not. We know lots of environmental activists - good, upstanding, albeit sometimes misguided citizens all. There are many legitimate ways to actively work to pursue environmental causes, from writing letters to Congress to filing lawsuits to committing acts of civil disobedience. These are all legitimate if controversial forms of political activism, although acts that involve civil disobedience also, appropriately, carry legitimate legal consequences.
Such activism shouldn't be confused with fire-bombing, sabotage and other violent acts intended to coerce or intimidate people or to rob people of their livelihoods. That's terrorism. Terrorism is no more legitimate in the pursuit of environmental interests than it is to advance political or religious causes. Someone who torches people's houses or workplaces is different in degree but not principle from those who flew hijacked jets into the World Trade Center.
We all need protection from eco-terrorists, but true environmentalists have the most to gain from a zero-tolerance approach and successful crackdown on those who resort to extremism in the name of the environment. Drawing a bright line acknowledging what's out of bounds also helps define what's in bounds.
It's not uncommon for people who disagree with environmentalists to discredit their adversaries by calling them environmental "terrorists." But that's not fair. Filing a lawsuit might be playing hardball, but it's not terrorism. Such loose application of the term "terrorism" is an offense against free speech and democracy.
But if it's important to acknowledge what isn't terrorism, it's also important to acknowledge what is. Violence and property crimes that seek to control people or change public policy through coercion qualify as terrorism, and acts of terrorism committed in the name of the environment or animal rights deserve the same treatment as terrorist attacks committed for other purposes.
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