New laws target increase in acts of ecoterrorism

They seek to curb arson, property damage, and threats of violence, but critics say the penalties stifle valid dissent.

A rise in ecoterrorism is prompting federal and state lawmakers to craft laws aimed specifically at radical environmental and animal-rights activists.

For those wanting to crack down on people who use arson and threats of personal violence to force better treatment of animals and nature, tougher legal penalties are logical. But to civil libertarians, and especially to law-abiding activists, this trend is an attempt to stifle legitimate political dissent, including peaceful civil disobedience. That it comes at a time of political stress over the war in Iraq, sometimes rough protests against international trade agreements, and calls to patriotism is not lost on either side.

Initially, acts of "monkey wrenching" amounted to little more than vandalism aimed at such targets as logging equipment and mink farms. In the 1990s, that escalated to major arson and bombings. Meanwhile, the range of targets in recent months has expanded to include biotechnology firms, SUV dealers, housing developments, Wal-Mart stores, and a bottled water plant.

According to the FBI, there have been some 600 acts of ecoterrorism in the United States with property losses totaling nearly $50 million. Speaking of recent attacks on biotech firms, Phil Celestini, head of the FBI's domestic terrorism unit in Washington, told the Associated Press, "We've seen a drastic escalation in the use of violent tactics in the past year."

So far, groups like the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) seem to have carefully avoided human injury or killing. Operating in small, unconnected groups with no central command, they've almost always avoided capture and prosecution as well.

But in September, when a group calling itself the "Revolutionary Cells Animal Liberation Brigade" set off a bomb at a California beauty products company with links to another company that uses animals for research, it warned that "all customers and their families are considered legitimate targets." And in a personal message to the head of a biotech company that had been attacked earlier this year, the group wrote: "You never know when your house, your car even, might go boom."

In Portland, Ore. next month, former ALF and ELF spokesman Craig Rosebraugh will publish his book, "The Logic of Political Violence." The cover features a photo of the collapsing twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York.

In frustration, and under pressure from special interests ranging from agribusinesses to SUV owners to hunters, lawmakers are proposing measures aimed at such violence.

In Congress last month, a bill was introduced specifying ecoterrorism as a federal crime and providing stiff penalties for anyone who "intentionally damages the property of another with the intent to influence the public with regard to conduct the offender considers harmful to the environment."

"These people are not environmentalists. They are not even part of the most radical sect of left-wing environmentalists," says Rep. Candice Miller (R) of Michigan, cosponsor of the Stop Terrorism of Property Act. "These people are terrorists, and it's time we held them responsible for engaging in these frightening acts."

PART OF THE problem is that "most states make no legal distinction between a disgruntled youth vandalizing a public park and an organized ecoterrorist torching a family's home," says Sandy Liddy Bourne of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative think tank.

The ALEC, an organization of state and national lawmakers backed by corporate sponsors, has written model legislation that makes any property damage or destruction in the name of animal rights or environmental protection a category of domestic terrorism. The legislation would increase penalties and punish those who assist or finance such acts. It also would create a "terrorist registry" where a photo and other personal information about anybody found guilty under the law would be posted on a website for at least three years - similar to registries of sex offenders.

"The legislation specifically addresses actions that are designed to intimidate, coerce, invoke fear or other forms of terror that are committed in the name of environmental or animal-rights activism," says Ms. Bourne. So far, lawmakers in Oklahoma, Texas, New York, Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Oregon have introduced laws patterned after the model.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other supporters of civil liberties say such laws, if enacted, would violate constitutional protections of free speech and political activity.

Mainstream environmental groups have spoken out against radical organizations engaged in destructive and dangerous acts. But they see laws now being promoted in Congress and state houses as vehicles for antienvironmental special interests.

"The legislation is so sweeping and nebulous it could also cover nonviolent civil disobedience or even ordinary environmental activism," says Andrew Becker of the Sierra Club. Because some proposed state laws aimed at ecoterrorism could be interpreted as outlawing financial support for those engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience, Mr. Becker says, "holding a bake sale to support tree sitters could be a terrorist offense."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.