Why Does the Govt. Treat Peaceful Enviro Activists More Harshly Than Extremists Who Aim to Kill?
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BS: In light of the ways the post-9/11 climate of fear fuelled debates about domestic terrorism, how do you think Osama bin Laden's death could alter the public discussion about eco-terrorism?
WP: What has stood out to me in the past couple of days is how little we as a country have changed -- or to put it another way, how much this rhetoric, these policies, and this way of viewing the world has become institutionalized. President Obama made a statement in which he said that Osama bin Laden may be dead but we will never forget the legacy of what has happened.
I would actually argue that we have forgotten. We really have forgotten what and how much things have changed. We have forgotten the uproar that existed surrounding the Patriot Act that was passed in the middle of the night. We have forgotten how national security policies were completely overhauled in the name of fighting terrorism. We have forgotten when "terrorism" was not a household word heard on the news every single day. We have forgotten all of these things. To me, Osama bin Laden's death really represents a pivotal moment in a long chain of events that is becoming more and more everyday life. I don't want to be pessimistic, but I don't think his death will lead to much change because it has become such a big part of not just the Bush administration but the Obama administration. Now that this threat has been killed, there will be another threat.
BS: In some ways, this doesn't seem like it should be a partisan issue, but as you point out, the legal maneuvers and chilling effects passed under the second Bush administration have continued -- much to many people's disappointment -- since President Obama took office. Why do you think that is?
WP: Going into the Obama administration, there was certainly reason to believe that he would be different. The example I use in the book is from a senate committee hearing on ecoterrorism where he submitted a letter of opposition, saying the hearing was a misplaced priority, a waste of government resources, scaremongering -- it was really fantastic. But since being in office, his policies not just on so-called ecoterrorism but about national security issues in general have been quite awful. He has supported extraordinary rendition, which is sending people to other countries to be tortured. He supported immunity for the telecoms that illegally spied on Americans. The list goes on and on. I don't know if that means that there's no possibility of change with the Obama administration, but like you said, I think a lot of people are quite disappointed. And I think if more people knew the extent of how much Obama has not only supported but gone even further than the Bush administration, I think there'd be a lot more outrage.
BS: How do laws like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and the vague legal definition of terrorism in general contribute to the government's ability to label eco-activists as criminals or worse?
WP: I'd argue there are two strategies going on at the same time that make this happen. One is pushing the limits of existing laws. So, for instance, with the [multi-agency ecoterrorist criminal investigation] Operation Backfire cases, the government pushed for terrorism enhancement penalties, which had never been used against environmentalists or animal rights activists before. They did this to officially classify them as terrorists and chalk this up as a victory in the war on terrorism. It has also led to disproportionately harsh treatment of ALF prisoners in the case.