American Terrorism, Environment-Style

Terrorists are loose in America. Eco-terrorists. In August radical environmentalists apparently burned down an apartment complex under construction in San Diego.

A couple of weeks later eco-terrorists attacked four SUV dealerships in West Covina, a Los Angeles suburb. Federal agents have arrested for the crime a 25-year-old member of an organization supposedly dedicated to peace and environmentalism.

These attacks were likely perpetrated by the Environmental Liberation Front, which has boasted of committing arson and bombings. Early last year ELF issued “an open call for direct action.” It later took responsibility for torching a Forest Service lab in Pennsylvania.

The Animal Liberation Front is similar. The two groups are blamed for $45 million worth of damage in a campaign involving at least 600 arsons and other incidents going back to 1996. ALF’s spokesman explained: “It’s a war. A long, hard, bloody, war.”

Eco-terrorism first gained attention in the early 1970s when “the Fox” engaged in a campaign of eco-sabotage against Chicago-area firms. The group Environmental Action published the self-help guide “Ecotage!” in 1972. Edward Abbey later romanticized eco-terrorism in his novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”

Dave Foreman, a former lobbyist for the Wilderness Society, founded Earth First! in 1981. Foreman, later convicted for conspiring to sabotage nuclear power plants in three states, argued that monkeywrenching “is morally required” as “self-defense on the part of the Earth.” After a millworker was seriously injured when a hidden spike shattered a saw blade, Foreman responded: “the old-growth forest in North Idaho is a hell of a lot more important than Joe Six-pack.”

Ecoteurs spiked trees and National Forest trails to puncture tires and strung wire to disrupt races. Eco-saboteurs destroyed an electrical substation in Canada, vandalized a ski lift in Arizona, wrecked a utility bridge in Montana, cut power lines in Arizona, Colorado and Utah, and damaged construction equipment at various sites. Ranches were another target.

Aspiring eco-saboteurs imagined even more. The publication “Earth First!” ran an anonymous letter-writer who declared:

“The only way to stop all the destruction of our home is to decrease the birth rate or increase the death rate of people. … What we need is a wholesale operation. … The simple expedient: biological warfare!”

If Osama bin Laden had thought to use environmental rhetoric.

Luckily, Earth First! never initiated biological war. Now ELF and ALF have moved to the fore. Arson is their tool of choice, one that is likely to eventually kill people as well as destroy property.

Mainstream environmental groups have done little to discourage eco-saboteurs. Years ago David Brower, one-time Sierra Club executive director and later chairman of Friends of the Earth, gave office space to Earth First! He explained: “I’m certainly not going to be against civil disobedience.”

In fact, he added, “Earth First! makes Friends of the Earth look reasonable. What we need now is an outfit to make Earth First! look reasonable.”

ALF and ELF do that.

The vegan campaign coordinator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Bruce Friedrich, told the Animal Rights 2001 conference: “If we really believe that animals have the same right to be free from pain and suffering at our hands, then, of course we’re going to be blowing things up and smashing windows.”

Rick Berman of the Center for Consumer Freedom points to financial ties between PETA and ALF/ELF. The former made a direct contribution to ELF in 2000, and has underwritten the activities of ALF/ELF activists since 1995, including aiding the defense of Rodney Coronado, convicted of arson in 1992.

Existing law covers traditional crimes, but has not targeted organizations fomenting eco-terrorism. Observes the American Legislative Exchange Council, which works with state legislators: “making no legal distinction between the common thug who vandalizes a public park and an organized ecoterrorist … allows for a significant circular turnover rate, where criminals return to their organizations to commit further crimes in other locations or jurisdictions.”

Thus, ALEC has proposed model legislation to prohibit acts of or support for environmental terrorism, set penalties for violators, allow victims to sue for treble damages, target organizations that promote ecoterrorism, and allow forfeiture of property used in such offenses. They are not designed for broader use against ever more expansive targets, unlike the old RICO legislation and recent Patriot acts I and II, which have posed potent threats to civil liberties.

Although a higher standard of living makes it easier to protect the environment, some trade-off between ecological and economic values is inevitable. In a democratic society, such disagreements are fought with words, not guns.

But an extremist few have decided to use violence to get their way. They, like al-Qaeda’s adherents, threaten American lives and property.