Saturday, January 21, 2006

Sabotage is not Terrorism

A federal grand jury yesterday indicted 11 people with ties to radical environmental groups for committing acts of what officials labeled "domestic terrorism". According to the New York Times, charges included arson, sabotage, and conspiracy in attacks against government facilities, research centers, and private businesses.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that "the indictment tells a story of four and one half years of arson, vandalism, violence and destruction claimed to have been executed on behalf of the Animal Liberation Front or Earth Liberation Front, extremist movements known to support acts of domestic terrorism."

Alleged crimes include burning down a ski resort and a lumber mill.

Federal officials have made it clear that they'll not tolerate such activity. FBI director Robert Mueller said that prosecuting persons who commit crimes "in the name of animal rights or the environment" was one of the bureau's "highest domestic terrorism priorities." Last year FBI officials told a congressional committee that eco-terrorism is the bureau's top domestic terrorism concern.

Wait just one minute.

Arson may be a serious crime, and we can hardly expect law enforcement to overlook it. But it isn't terrorism. The alleged crimes in yesterday's indictment are about sabotage, not terrorism. There's a huge difference.

Imagine how Osama bin Laden might dismiss your average garden-variety eco-saboteur: "I know terrorism. Terrorists are friends of mine. You, sir, are no terrorist."

The distinction is really quite simple: terrorism is about violence against people. Eco-sabotage is about destruction of property.

As the name implies, terrorism aims to "terrorize", usually to achieve a political end. Eco-sabotage aims to impede a specific activity deemed to be harmful to the environment or, in the case of ALF, to non-human life.

As such, sabotage is carefully targeted. Terrorism tends to be indiscriminate, random, capricious. In fact, it is most effective when it is so. Any victims, even (or especially) innocent ones, will do.

Terrorism is intended to create fear. Sabotage is intended to disrupt. Often the target of disruption is a particular economic activity.

Terrorists detonate bombs on crowded streets in the middle of the day. Saboteurs destroy property in the middle of the night when nobody is around.

Terrorists deem harm to people to be their primary effect. Saboteurs deem harm to people to be an unintended side-effect, and take pains to avoid it.

Eco-saboteurs tend to be scrupulous about not harming people. And indeed, not one person has died in the United States as a consequence of eco-sabotage. (Compare this with the activities of true domestic terrorism groups such as white supremacists and other right-wing groups that do attack people. For example, 168 people died in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But of course, Timothy McVeigh intended for people to die.)

Dave Foreman, co-founder in the 1980s of the radical Earth First! environmental movement has written books, such as Ecodefense, on the subject of eco-sabotage (also called "monkeywrenching"). In the chapter "The Principles of Monkeywrenching" of his book Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, he writes:

"Monkeywrenching is nonviolent. Monkeywrenching is nonviolent resistance to the destruction of natural diversity and wilderness. It is never directed toward harming human beings or other forms of life. It is aimed at inanimate machines and tools that are destroying life. Care is always taken to minimize any possible threat to people, including the monkeywrenchers themselves."

Perhaps nowhere more than in this bastion of materialism we call America is it so easy to equate destruction of property with violence against people. But the equation is wrong.

Said director Mueller: "Terrorism is terrorism, no matter what the motive. The FBI is committed to protecting Americans from crime and terrorism, including acts of domestic terrorism in the name of animal rights or the environment."

It is quite true that the means and not the motive are what defines terrorism. But statements such as Mueller's and Gonzales's mischaracterize the means.

Does it really matter if we refer to eco-sabotage as "domestic terrorism"? You bet it does. How we refer to a thing affects how we think about it. "Terrorism", particularly now, is a distinctly loaded term. If we can refer to some group--any group--as terrorist, we can more easily marshal all forces of the state (and, indeed, the police state) to obliterate it and its adherents--and also its cause. Incorrect, imprecise, and misleading labels are a primary tool of totalitarian propaganda--especially if those labels carry great emotional charge. We should insist upon meticulously correct terminolgy whenever police power is involved.

Since from a political standpoint terrorism is the lifeblood of the Bush administration, there's no surprise that it readily finds terrorism wherever it wants. But the "war" on terrorism is unlike any conventional war in that it is apparently unending. The more broadly terrorism can be defined, the more open ended is the war--and the presidential powers required to wage it.

In this era of domestic spying*, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo, and contract torture, that's something we should all be worrying about.

* I suppose they'll be watching me now ... -sigh-

Copyright (C) 2006 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved


At Sat Jan 21, 01:54:00 PM, Blogger Dinglefritz said...

I disagree. One of the targets was not to far from were I live. It's scary when a local business goes up in flames. In away I was "terrorized" by these crimes. So these people are terrorists because they did cause terror among the local population. It may not seem this way for people that live far away from the crime scenes, but when you are right there it's pretty scary.

At Sat Jan 21, 02:49:00 PM, Blogger Mike Brennan said...

No doubt that's true. It would be scary; it would be traumatic. But by that standard all kinds of criminal acts that we don't call "terrorism" would qualify as terrorism.

At Wed Jan 25, 09:29:00 AM, Anonymous bert said...

I agree that eco-sabatoge should not be labeled terrorism even if it does 'terrorize' in the sense that dinglefritz mentioned. But what is scarier? Emotional terrorism of a few people who live near a sight of a burning building, or the emotional damage that millions would experience if ANWAR was destrowed by oil drilling.

On the other hand, how do you measure the emotional distress the local business owner feels to the emotional distress felt by distant environmentalists.

I think language should be used carefully, and I don't think the Bush administration does that. But arson is against the law. I would call that civil disobedience when it is done in the same sense as chaining oneself to the Pentagon doors as it was done to protest the the Vietmnam war.

I don't think it's easy to gauge emotional distress and weigh the balance of various disagreeing groups.

I don't mean to sound wishy-washy but I think dinglefritz has a point.

At Wed Jan 25, 10:24:00 AM, Blogger Mike Brennan said...

Of course dinglefritz has a point. But it only goes so far, and not all that far, it seems to me.

That a side effect of a particular activity is great emotional distress in some people is not sufficient reason to label that activity terrorism--especially in the post-911 United States.

The distinction seems perfectly clear to me, and I think my original post did a fairly good job of laying it out.

At Thu Jan 26, 10:33:00 AM, Anonymous bert said...

Point taken. I was just trying to see how it looks to someone who might get hit by a nail when the log goes through the sawblade.

You're right, though. Even so, it shouldn't be labeled terrorism.

Weather's beautiful. Would be a good day to be out on the land.

If only ...

At Thu Jan 26, 11:44:00 AM, Blogger Mike Brennan said...

It probably looks pretty shitty to the person who gets hit by the nail that gets hit by a sawblade.

But even that example illustrates my point. Persons who spike trees (so I've heard--I have no personal experience with this!) take pains to warn the government and the timber companies that the trees are spiked. What they want is for the trees to be left alone--not for somebody to get hurt. Knowing that the trees are spiked, sensible timber companies will decline to harvest them.


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