Ecoterror's troubling trend

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After destroying the United States Forest Service Northeast Research Station in Irvine, Pa. this summer, members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) used the incident to announce an escalation in their attacks.

"This global revolutionary movement is no longer limiting their revolutionary potential by adhering to ... nonviolent ideology," the perpetrators wrote. "While innocent life will never be harmed in any action we undertake ... we will no longer hesitate to pick up the gun to implement justice, and provide the needed protection for our planet that decades of legal battles, pleading protest, and economic sabotage have failed so drastically to achieve."

I can't say I was surprised when the group announced that it would "no longer hesitate to pick up the gun" in its ongoing attempt to spark a "revolution." Escalation in violence is the avenue of every failing terrorist campaign. And the Earth Liberation Front is nothing, if not a failure.

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Their past decade of bombing and arson in the name of the environment has done little for the planet. In the 10 years since ELF was founded, it can claim few – if any – victories.

Their most highly touted attack – burning down a $12 million Vail ski resort building in lynx habitat – was a complete failure. ELF's actions knocked the knees out from under the established grass-roots opposition. That paved the way for an even larger resort expansion and even more habitat destruction.

Repeated counterproductive ELF actions like this one make environmentalists seem irrational and dangerous. At the same time, their escalating attacks create public acceptance for the harassment and persecution of nonviolent activists.

Those opposed to the environmental movement have used ELF's actions to brand other activists with the "ecoterrorism" label. They've lumped bombing in with nonviolent tree-sits, boycotts, lawsuits, and picket lines. In doing so, they have found support for new laws against environmental activism here in the West.

Yet, while the far right has been using each incident of arson or bombing as justification for attacking environmentalists, many on the left have downplayed the seriousness of ELF activities. Indeed, politically left activists and writers are still tied up in a debate over whether ELF activities constitute terrorism.

Supporters rationalize ELF's actions as a "legitimate form of protest." They make comparisons to the underground railroad and the Boston Tea Party (both, ironically, precursors to violent terrorism and eventually bloody wars.) They pen contorted philosophical arguments to lay out why arson and bombing should not be considered terrorism. They call such actions "monkey wrenching" or "economic sabotage."

Yet, this euphemistic language blurs the lines between progressive environmental activist groups, and organizations and individuals primarily directed at physical destruction and intimidation. That blurred line is damaging to environmentalists and a godsend to those who oppose them.

More important, the semantics are lost in the court of public opinion. Most people understand why firebombing university research labs and blowing up SUVs and logging trucks are actions beyond the pale of legitimate protest. Most reasonable people grasp that bombs and arson are dangerous by nature. Using such tactics to advance political aims threatens democracy.

Most people understand instinctively that it is the terror – the threat of force to impose the will of a small minority – that makes terrorism.

It is easy to see why some on the left would feel sympathy for ELF's actions, however. Such actions seem to provide a cathartic outlet to those frustrated with protracted environmental battles and a skewed power-structure that gives corporations more victories than individuals.

Indeed, it has been said that terrorism is "most often the product of a frustrated extremist fringe of an otherwise well-meaning group of people." Yet, it is vital for well-meaning people to understand what terrorism does to their cause. The product of terrorism is terror, not enlightenment.

Ecoterrorism undermines popular support for environmental causes and reinforces stereotypes about environmentalists. It paints those who care about the environment as uncompromising absolutists.

For the past decade, grass-roots organizations and environmentalists have been working hard to change our relationship with the environment, to forge a way for us to reintegrate the human economy into the constraints of the ecosystems to which we belong. Environmental groups are working with people to make their communities more sustainable, both economically and ecologically.

It took years for the environmental movement to realize that while human actions are the source of environmental problems, they are also the only source of solutions. Like the Bush administration, ELF seems to want to turn back the clock on environmental thinking – reinstating the old false dichotomy of environment versus the economy – human well-being versus the planet that sustains us.

In truth ELF and its peers are enemies of the environment and the environmental movement. They share neither ideology nor common cause with most environmentalists. Their escalation to more violent tactics is a symptom of their failure, their stillborn ideology, and their madness.

If they become more violent, the danger to the environmental movement could be catastrophic.

• Ed Hunt is the editor in chief of the Tidepool.org news service.

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