A few thoughts on terrorism

There’s an interesting article in The Stranger this week about ecoterrorism. Primarily, it’s about the prosecution and sentencing of an Earth Liberation Front (ELF) cell, but it also raised some interesting points, in my mind.

What is terrorism?

A. Schmid, writing for the United Nations, says that:

“Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby – in contrast to assassination – the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat- and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organization), (imperilled) victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target (audience(s)), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought” (Schmid, 1988).

He argued that terrorism is a peace time war crime–actions that in a time of war would be determined to be war crimes should be deemed terrorism if they take place in a time of peace. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime states that “deliberate attacks on civilians, hostage taking and the killing of prisoners” are at the core of war crimes, and these actions during peace time should be deemed acts of terrorism.

The United States, naturally, interprets terrorism a little more broadly, and close inspection of the relevant section of the Patriot Act reveals that property destruction, if the property belongs to the military or is vital to federal operations, will also be deemed terrorism, along with the run of the mill kidnapping, torture, and so forth. In addition, damage to aircraft and airports, communications facilities/lines, wrecking trains, interfering with interstate commerce, and of course using chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons are all acts of terrorism.

“(5) the term `domestic terrorism’ means activities that–

`(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;

`(B) appear to be intended–

`(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;

`(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or

`(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and

`(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”

I think the primary point of my disagreement with the sentencing of ELF and ALF members is that I don’t view property destruction/liberation as terrorism, particularly personal property. I can understand how, for example, sabotage of nuclear submarines might be construed to be terrorism. But destruction/liberation of personal property has different legal definitions and punishments. (Although one might also argue that personal property is theft, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

The ELF has a history which includes thousands of actions. Not once has a human or animal been hurt in the course of an ELF action. The ELF is an underground movement, with no formal spokespeople or leadership. Members undertake actions on their own, and choose to mark them with the ELF banner–the ELF clearly states that when undertaking a mission, members need to ensure that humans and animals will not be harmed, and that undertaking illegal actions is done at the personal choice of the members. The ELF is about property destruction to make a clear and public point.

Is it terrorism?

I suppose if you are planning on building a ski resort at Vail, an obscenely oversized house, or opening an SUV dealership, you might be concerned about ELF–but not as a personal threat, rather as a threat to your property. This is an important distinction. If people were fearing for their lives as a result of ELF actions and statements, the organization could justifiably be branded as terrorist. However, people fear for their property, and that is an entirely different matter. Should hurricanes be dubbed terrorists because they threaten people’s property? We are not our property, however much our economy is driven by that premise.

However, under the Patriot Act, groups like the ELF could be considered terrorist, because they are trying to coerce and intimidate civilian populations into respecting the earth. The ELF’s members choose big flashy targets because people wake up and pay attention when multimillion dollar homes are burned, something they don’t always do when Sierra Club members march around with signs to protest. Of course, the men who participated in the direct action known as the Boston Tea Party were also practicing an act of terrorism under the Patriot Act–destruction of property to coerce and intimidate a government. Direct action and seditious speech are a part of American history and culture, and a vital part of who we are as a nation. Of course the government is going to disagree with actions undertaken by fringe groups–that’s the whole point. If the government agreed with the ELF that extreme measures needed to be taken to save the earth, the ELF wouldn’t need to exist.

In January of this year, ELF claimed responsibility for burning a 9,600 square foot single family home on Camano Island. Allow me to repeat the relevant part of that sentence, for those of you who missed it: 9,600 square foot single family home. The man who owns the home, according to The Stranger, “didn’t have strong feelings about the environment before his house burned. Now he’s had to think about it.”

Clearly, my difference in opinion with the government has an ideological base–I feel so strongly about the environment that I find it acceptable to use direct action in an attempt to save it. Clearly the government doesn’t–from the mouth of Ari Fleischer:

In May 2001, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was asked at a press conference whether the president believed that it might be time for Americans to change their habits so as to conserve environmental resources. “That’s a big ‘No,'” Fleischer replied. “The president believes that it’s an American way of life, and it should be the goal of policymakers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one.”