If a Tree Falls in the Woods: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Documentary)
There are many people and/or groups who claim responsibility for the Earth Liberation Front's (ELF) development. The group is comprised of loosely affiliated or autonomous cells that are only bound by the idea that they can move beyond civil disobedience and accept more contentious tactics for the defense of their environmental causes. This group was one of the groups that helped coined the label of an "eco-terrorist" which later became mainstream label of such types of offenders. The ELF group was considered one of the first eco-terrorist groups and was at one time labeled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as the most dangerous domestic terror group in the United States.
This analysis will provide a background on eco-terrorism followed by more specific information about the ELF group and the actions that they have claimed responsibility for including a string of arsons. It has been estimated by some that collectively groups such as the ELF and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) have caused in excess of one hundred million dollars in damages by acts of vandalism and harassment. There have also been a number of terrorist convictions that have arisen from ELF members being prosecuted in Federal Courts.
Most of the convictions that have occurred are from one of the groups that formed in the Northwestern United States as an offshoot of the group Earth First. There is even a documentary that was produced that follows the stories, trials, and convictions of one of these groups' members that will be discussed. There is some controversy regarding whether or not this group should be classified as a terrorist group due to the fact that, despite hundreds of actions, there has been no injury or loss of life. The group has limited there destructive actions to property damage.
Terrorism can mean different things to different people. As one law enforcement official said in the documentary "If a Tree Falls," "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Some terrorists are motivated by religion, nationalism, ideology, and social cause among other motivations. Therefore it is important to try to develop a working definition of what terrorism actually means for the purpose of analysis. The documentary that is discussed later in this analysis, illustrates some of the controversy that is found in labeling eco-terrorist in the same manner that an Islamic-terrorist would be labeled under the law. This also has implications for the detention housing options for criminals after their criminal convictions. The film follows an eco-terrorist who would benefit in his prison arrangement if he would have been prosecuted as an arsonist under the law as opposed to receiving a terrorist conviction.
Terrorism is defined in many different ways by different groups and certainly has a subjective component to the definition. The FBI's definition of domestic terrorism in the U.S. Code is that "Domestic terrorism" means activities with the following three characteristics (Federal Bureau of Investigation, N.d.):
2. Appear 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
3. Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.
The FBI defines eco-terrorism as the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature (Jarboe, 2002). Different types of terrorism are labeled by what the terrorists are trying to defend. Therefore, the eco designation in front of the eco-terrorism label is intended to designate that this type of terrorist is trying to defend the environment. There are also agri-terrorist (agricultural) and other specific subgroups of terrorist labels.
Examples of Eco-Terrorism Groups
In the last three decades, radical environmental and animal rights groups increased their membership by many individuals that have become disenfranchised with the political and social avenues for change. These groups have claimed responsibility for hundreds of crimes and acts of terrorism, including arson, bombings, vandalism and harassment which have caused untold millions of dollars in damage. Many of these terrorists that are responsible for these actions have been found and held accountable under the legal system while others have evaded law enforcement.
The organization of these terrorist groups makes them difficult to identify in many cases. There is no official leadership in the organization and anyone that shares roughly the same ideology can host their own cells. Given the advantages of the web to disseminate information, and despite the fact that there is no official leadership organize these groups, ideas, tactics, and knowledge quickly and without detection. The model for a leaderless group has developed over time and represents an effective way to try to avoid detection from law enforcement officials.
Beginning as early as the 1960s, groups like Earth First, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), Earth Liberation Front (ELF), and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) can trace their roots. Most of these groups can trace their history back to non-criminal organizations that had a fringe group break free from the parent organization. These fringe groups accepted tactics that were contrary to their parent organization that had been demonstrating in peaceful and lawful protests. The tactics that the fringe groups used also developed over time. The initial tactics were primarily limited to what was considered "monkey wrenching" or conduct illegal acts that were relatively harmless but slowed the progression of the organizations they targeted.
Initial acts of resistance by these fringe group included putting sugar in the gas tanks of logging equipment and tree spiking which is the act of placing metal pins in trees so that loggers cannot cut down the trees without the risk of injury. However, these acts quickly progressed in there malevolence. Some groups have been responsible for acts that include using fuel cell devices to burn SUVs at car dealerships, logging operations, ski resorts, and university research facilities among other targets which were justified for causes of "ecology" and/or "animal rights."
One of the first formal eco-terrorist groups composed of disaffected environmentalists, in 1980, formed a radical group called "Earth First!" And engaged in a series of protests and civil disobedience events (Jarboe, 2002). In 1984, however, this group started to advocate the "tree spiking" (insertion of metal or ceramic spikes in trees in an effort to damage saws) as a tactic to thwart logging. The FBI further reports that in 1992, the ELF was founded in Brighton, England, by Earth First! members who refused to abandon criminal acts when the mainstream Earth First wanted to remain a peaceful group that protested via civil disobedience. The ELF and the ALF work closely together. This unity continues today with a crossover of leadership and membership.
The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) is U.S.'s most active extreme animal rights movement which has been endorsed by more mainstream organizations such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The ALF is believed to have origins in the group of English activists in the late 1960's known as the Hunt Saboteurs Association. One of the original targets for this organization was fox hunting in England which was deemed as immoral and unethical. One of the first domestic attacks recorded occurred in 1979 when an activist group broke into the New York University Medical School and released five animals. The animal rights extremist increased their dedication to sabotage in 1987 when the ALF when an arson attack at the University of California-Davis veterinary laboratory causing multiple million dollars' worth of damage (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2002).
Another group, the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) was originally formed in 1998 when the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) broadcast of a graphic documentary alleging mistreatment of animals by Huntingdon Life Science (HLS), a British-based research firm. With the graphic portrayal of animal cruelity, the SHAC quickly spread to different countries and worked to radicalize many animal rights activists. Huntingdon Life Sciences has labs in New Jersey and England, and five undercover investigations have shown workers punching beagle puppies in the face, dissecting live monkeys and falsifying scientific data (Potter, N.d.). Activists with SHAC set out to close the lab using tactics similar to the anti-apartheid movement: they pressured business associated with the lab to sever ties, in what the government has called "tertiary targeting."
The Earth Liberation Front
Most of the ELF activities have been limited to what the group refers to as "monkeywrenching," a euphemism for acts of sabotage and property destruction against industries and other entities perceived to be damaging to the natural environment (Federal Bureau of Investigation, N.d.). "Monkeywrenching" includes tree spiking, arson,…
Federal Bureau of Investigation. (N.d.). Definitions of Terrorism in the U.S. Code. Retrieved from Federal Bureau of Investigation: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/terrorism/terrorism-definition
Jarboe, J. (2002, February 12). Testimony Before the House Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. Retrieved from Federal Bureau of Investigation: http://www.fbi.gov/news/testimony/the-threat-of-eco-terrorism