A remorseless rapist in Hamilton County, Ohio is sentenced to 15 years in
prison for beating and raping a 57-year-old woman. An environmental activist in
California is sentenced to 22 years and 8 months for burning three SUVS at a car
dealership after taking precautions to harm no lives.
The disparity helps illustrates what animal rights and environmental groups
say is an expanding Orwellian attack on American environmentalism being waged
under the pretext of eco-terrorism.
In recent months, conservative lawmakers, right-wing advocacy groups and law
enforcement officials have ramped up efforts to dismantle eco-terrorist groups
and their supports. But critics say vague wording in the USA Patriot Act, new
eco-terrorist bills and aggressive law enforcement tactics are ways of quashing
civil dissent and tainting law-abiding organizations.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is at the forefront of this movement. On
June 21, FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Counterterrorism John Lewis said
eco-terrorists are one of the top domestic terrorist threats in the U.S., having
chalked up some 1,200 acts of eco-terrorism since 1990 totaling $110 million in
property damage. Eco-terrorist groups have caused no deaths.
As the FBI works to shut down elusive and decentralized eco-terrorist
networks, civil rights groups say agents are going so far as illegally spying on
activists. In June, a federal disclosure lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties
Union forced the FBI to admit having collected 2,400 pages of files on
Greenpeace, the most vocal critic of the Bush administration's environmental
record, in addition to other groups.
In the courts, prosecutors work to convict activists charged with property
crimes under vague and harshly punitive domestic terrorism laws. One activist,
Tre Arrow, is facing life in prison for allegedly burning three logging and
cement trucks in an Oregon forest. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Peifer, in an
interview in June, said Arrow's alleged actions are considered domestic
terrorism because "it is a systematic attempt to use the threat of violence to
instill fear for political or social purposes."
"Animal liberation movements are being demonized not just as whacko or
extremist, but also as terrorist," says Steven Best, an animal rights activist
and philosophy professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. "A collective
insanity is sweeping the nation [and is] no less absurd, outrageous, frightening
and irrational than the Red Scare of the 1950s. The USA Patriot Act expands
government's law enforcement powers nationwide as it minimizes meaningful review
and oversight by an independent judicial body."
Even though existing laws covering crimes such as arson, theft and
trespassing are used to charge eco-terrorists, conservative lawmakers in several
states are proposing laws that define eco-terrorism as a distinct offense --
something federal law does not do -- and deepen penalties for environmentally
These states are each taking different approaches. Since 2001, 14 states have
introduced laws directly addressing eco-terrorism, according to an association
that tracks state legislation. California was the first state to pass such a law
in 2003, and a New York law outlaws, for example, clandestine taping of animal
facilities, a key tool for animal rights groups. One Ohio lawmaker wants to
prosecute eco-terrorists under racketeering laws to let the state seize assets
of convicted activists and sue those who are acquitted.
"I believe legislative efforts that brand activists as 'terrorists' are
largely aimed at intimidating compassionate Americans from speaking out against
institutionalized animal cruelty, such as the abuse and exploitation of animal
by the multi-billion dollar meat, dairy and egg industries," said Nathan Runkle,
executive director of Mercy For Animals, an Ohio-based animal advocacy
Larry Frankel, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of
Pennsylvania, described a current bill in his state that ramps up penalties for
criminal acts committed with a purpose involving animals or natural resources.
Frankel says the measure restricts freedom of speech by boosting penalties for
people who hold particular views.
At a June hearing, he told a Senate committee that under such a law "people
who protest outside of an animal research facility and block the entrance to
that facility may be considered eco-terrorists. On the other hand, people who
protest outside of a weapons-manufacturing plant and block the entrance to that
facility will not be subject to enhanced penalties even though they are engaged
in essentially similar activities."
Washington State Sen. Val Stevens, a Republican, has sponsored eco-terrorism
bills in the past and plans to do so again. She believes existing laws aren't
enough to meet a rising threat in her state. She also said that targeting
certain activities based on motive is reasonable. "Right now we use racketeering
laws to prosecute people who harass abortion clinics," she said. "Why can't we
do the same for eco-terrorists?"
Michael Markarian, a vice president at the Humane Society of the United
States, says two conservative groups are behind the national push for
The American Legislative Exchange Council, an association of conservative
lawmakers, has developed model eco-terror legislation and argues that more laws
are needed because the federal law used to convict eco-terrorists is too narrow.
Likewise, the FBI has also asked Congress to revise federal statues to address
criminal activity related to eco-terrorism, according to March congressional
testimony by John Lewis, the agency's deputy assistant director.
The Center for Consumer Freedom, a corporate-sponsored right-wing group, is
working to link mainstream environmental groups with underground extremists.
David Martosko, a CCF official, told the House Ways and Means Committee in
March that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the United
States Human Society (USHS), and the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) have, to
varying degrees, supported known eco-terrorists.
"I urge this committee to fully investigate the connections between
individuals who commit crimes in the name of the ALF [Animal Liberation Front],
ELF [Earth Liberation Front], or similar phantom groups, and the above-ground
individuals and organizations that give them aid and comfort," Martosko
testified. "I would also urge members of this Committee to prevail upon their
colleagues to re-examine the tax-exempt status of groups that have helped to
fund, directly or indirectly, these domestic terrorists."
The committee, chaired by California Republican Rep. Bill Thomas, was already
investigating RAN for possible violations of its tax exempt status last year, a
move RAN officials say is an effort by conservative politicians to stifle
radical critics. Labeling legitimate acts of protest as "eco-terror" is made
possible through fuzzy definitions in the USA Patriot Act, said UTEP professor
"The Patriot Act creates the new legal category of 'domestic terrorist' and
defines it in a chillingly broad manner," he wrote in an email. "According to
the law, the crime of domestic terrorism is committed when a person engages in
activity 'that involves acts dangerous to human life that violate the laws of
the U.S. and appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population
or to influence the policy of government by intimidation or coercion.' Clearly
'intimidation' and 'coercion' could mean anything, and the government does not
adequately distinguish between violent and nonviolent methods of
Best, who has also been a target of CCF's allegations, says the act's vague
definitions are a direct challenge to liberation groups like the ALF and ELF,
which represent a top domestic terrorist threat for law enforcement. "Indeed,
nearly any protest group can fit the definition of terrorists, for what is it to
'intimidate' or 'coerce' a 'civilian population' or 'to influence the policy of
the government by intimidation or coercion'? Protests often are intimidating,
and their entire point is to 'influence' policy."
Kelly Hearn is a former UPI staff writer who lives in Washington DC and
Latin America. His work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, American
Prospect, and other publications.