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Green Scare: Activists Targeted as "Terrorists"

The crackdown on "eco-terrorism" may be a warning to activist groups of all persuasions about the consequences of political action.
 
 
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In the wake of February 12 congressional hearings on the purported "eco- terrorism" threat, Jeffrey Kerr, lawyer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), wonders whether activists will soon be asked, "Are you now or have you ever been a vegetarian?"

Kerr speaks only half in jest. PETA was targeted as a supporter of eco-terrorism at the hearings because in April 2001, the animal rights group donated $1,500 to the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) Press Office. In a letter from Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colorado), PETA was asked to defend the contribution. The group said the money was meant to "assist [then ELF spokesman] Craig Rosebraugh with legal expenses related to free speech."

The congressional hearings focused overwhelmingly on the property destruction committed by groups like the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and ELF. McInnis, chairman of the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health and hearings organizer, has made a fight against eco-terrorism his new crusade. He made waves last fall when he sent a letter, signed by several other Republicans, to eight mainstream environmental groups—Greenpeace, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice and League of Conservation Voters. Waving the bloody shirt of September 11, he challenged them to "publicly disavow the actions of eco-terrorist organizations" like ELF and ALF.

Although none of the groups either advocated or committed such acts—and some, like the Sierra Club, had a history of denouncing them—they all responded affirmatively, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm or disdain. Earthjustice executive director Vawter Parker wrote that he was "disgusted by the assumption of the signers of the letter that the people answer to Congress; it used to be the other way around." McInnis' letter was viewed as a clumsy attempt to establish guilt by association, and his subsequent claim of having formed a "coalition" with the groups to combat eco-terrorism, laughable.

"It's the newest brand of McCarthyism, because lies and half-truths are being spewed forth by people in the pockets of industries," Kerr says of being targeted at the hearings. "It's frightening from a freedom and liberty point of view when you are labeled a terrorist because you're helping to defend an individual's fundamental constitutional rights." PETA has had nothing to do with the actions labeled as eco-terrorism, Kerr says, and neither condemns nor condones them.

ELF and ALF—more autonomous cells and individuals than actual groups—claim to have inflicted upwards of $40 million in property damage over the past five years. The sabotage campaign has been waged with firebombs and directed at targets that include lumber companies, a ski resort development and an agricultural genetic research institute.

ELF guidelines posted online require group members to "take all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human and non-human"—and no deaths or serious injuries have resulted from any ELF or ALF direct actions. Despite their strictures against inflicting harm on individuals, the two groups are now considered by the FBI to be the country's foremost domestic terrorism threat. Law enforcement authorities have been largely unsuccessful in finding and prosecuting the perpetrators, but say that it's only a matter of time before one of these actions results in death.

As the hearings demonstrated, since September 11, an ongoing effort to criminalize nonviolent, direct-action dissent by associating it with violence and property destruction has gained steam. Two bills that would virtually criminalize protest—and not just violent protest—are now pending at the state and federal levels. Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Washington) introduced his Agroterrorism Prevention Act last August to combat attacks on "plant enterprises" like the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture, leveled by fire last year.

Under Nethercutt's bill—which upgrades penalties for conduct "intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with plant or animal enterprises"—uprooting a field of genetically engineered corn would be considered terrorism. Another bill before the Pennsylvania state legislature, hailed as a "model bill" by the anti-environmental Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, would also so broadly define eco-terrorism as possibly to cover activists in a sit-in blockade at a store selling old growth lumber.

McInnis denies he is motivated by post-September 11 political opportunism. The hearings, he says, were scheduled last May. "I don't think we need new legislation. We need awareness."

The acts for which ELF and ALF claim responsibility are already illegal, he notes. "The question is, how do we get past the Robin Hood mystique some of these organizations are successful at building?" McInnis says he will continue to investigate financial contributions to groups like ELF and ALF.

There are disagreements within the broad environmental movement as to whether the actions of ALF and ELF actually constitute "terrorism." Some contend that they don't meet the definition because they aren't directed at inflicting physical harm to people. In an unsolicited letter to McInnis, Ray Vaughan of WildLaw, a non-profit environmental law firm, likened monkeywrenching sabotage to the Boston Tea Party.

ELF itself doesn't characterize what it does as terrorism. But ironically, Craig Rosebraugh, who was subpoenaed to testify at the hearings and until recently was ELF's spokesman, may disagree. McInnis is using the eco-terrorism issue as a "divide and conquer" tactic against the environmental movement, he says. In a phone interview, he says that he differs from the ELF in viewing their actions as terrorism—"But I don't consider that negative."

"I think the actions they engage in are purposely conducted to cause that fright, to cause terror in industries to make them stop acting in ways that are contrary to the health of the environment," says Rosebraugh. Successful social movements, he argues, "have used every tool in the toolbox. There's the necessity of not only legal campaigns but also, in most, if not all, occasions, a wholehearted illegal campaign involving terrorism, property destruction and beyond."