Ecoterrorism: Principled Idealism or Pointless Destruction?
In late July in Switzerland, three would-be ecoterrorists were sentenced to three years in prison each for conspiring to destroy the IBM center in Rüschlikon, near Zurich, while it was under construction.
It coincided roughly with the mid-July release of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, a documentary movie about ecoterrorist Daniel McGowan of the Earth Liberation Front, a loosely-connected group of small cells committed to violent destruction of property in the name of saving the earth.
According to information from the Swiss authorities, the case attracted protestors carrying placards and megaphones, calling for the “immediate release” of the three detainees, as well as their “spiritual father,” convicted Swiss ecoterrorist Marco Camenisch.
Why destroy an IBM center? What is the Earth Liberation Front? And more importantly, what drives ecoterrorists? What exactly do they hope to accomplish — or think they’re accomplishing?
The IBM Nanotechnology Center
According to The Daily Mail in April 2010, a routine traffic stop in Switzerland yielded three people, Italians Costantino Ragusa and Silvia Guerini and Italian-Swiss Luca Bernasconi, who were en route to bomb the site of the £55 million nanotechnology HQ of IBM in Europe. Ragusa and Guerini have both served jail time for ecoterrorism convictions, and Ragusa is said to be the head of Il Silvestre, a Red Brigades successor group.
The three were members of Il Silvestre, according to authorities, and “were stopped just a few miles from their target with their explosive device primed and ready to go.” In addition to the explosives, they also had ”31 letters claiming responsibility for the planned attack in the name of a group calling itself ELF Switzerland Earth Liberation Front” in the car with them.
Considered a newer European terrorist group, Il Silvestre has the usual tired, boring, unimaginative, repetitive litany of standard leftist grievances, claiming they’re anarchists particularly opposed, for some odd reason, to nanotechnology. As the Daily Mail noted in 2010, when completed, the IBM site will contain “the most state-of-the-art facilities in Europe for nano-and-bio-technological research.” It already had some of the most sophisticated computer equipment in the world installed at the time of the arrest. It opened without incident in May 2011.
Il Silvestre has another proud member: Marco Camenisch, currently in jail for the murder of a Swiss border guard and sabotaging electricity facilities in a protest against nuclear energy from the late 1970s and with a long list of other such associations. The three hapless Il Silvestre ecoterrorists were sentenced in Bellinzona to terms of just over three years, and under the European system they will have to pay court costs.
Like Mao’s Guerrilla Cells
One thing that makes it difficult for law enforcement to infiltrate and build intelligence on such violent terrorists is that they operate in small cells, according to Gary Perlstein, an emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at Portland State University, who told Newsweek in 2008 that the cell structure is characteristic of Mao Zedong, who wrote about setting up groups of three to five people, and keeping them autonomous and unconnected: “That way, if someone gets caught they can’t give too much information. The ELF is that type of organization, because they don’t really have an organization,” Perlstein explained.
But there is a connection, at least of affinity if not formal structure. According to Swiss officials, on October 5, 2010 a bomb was found outside the Swiss embassy in Rome near a sign calling for the release of the three imprisoned Il Silvestre members, and on November 1 a letter bomb seriously injured the hand of an employee of the Swiss embassy in Rome and a bomb exploded at the Chilean Embassy in Rome, injuring a man’s face and hands. The Informal Anarchist Federation claimed responsibility for the attack and mentioned the three.
Other package bombings continued, injuring more people, claimed by the Informal Anarchist Federation, until the case opened for trial.
The Earth Liberation Front’s Green Terrorism
The Earth Liberation Front (ELF), in the style of ecoterrorists, isn’t an organization as such, but more a name claimed by a group of autonomous cells committed to property destruction, “economic sabotage and guerilla warfare to stop the “exploitation and destruction of the environment,” according to a group calling itself the ELF Press Office.
According to the standard Wikipedia writeup, the ELF was founded in Brighton in the United Kingdom in 1992, and spread to the rest of Europe by 1994. It’s now believed to be active in at least 17 countries.
ELF calls their brand of violent terrorism “monkeywrenching,” and they do things like destroy logging equipment, burn down homes, wreck sport utility vehicles for which they seem to have a particular animosity, and rather haphazardly target anybody and anything they deem to be exploiting the Earth.
About the only unifying thread to ELF’s various acts of domestic terrorism is that they’re spectacularly inconsequential to any larger goals or aims, and serve only to destroy that which belongs to somebody other than ELF. Some are high-profile — on October 19, 1998, ELF terrorists set fires that destroyed a portion of the Vail ski resort, four ski lifts, a restaurant, a picnic facility, and a utility building, claiming it torched the resort because its expansion threatened the declining habitat of lynx. Damages: $12 million.
Pointless Vandalism Or Constructive Idealism? You Decide.
It would seem the vast majority of ELF terrorism is simply pointless vandalism dressed up in idealism, resulting in nothing more than great expense to others. Some more or less random examples:
October 26, 1998. ELF goons release 5,000 mink at Tom Pipkorn’s Mink Farm near Hermansville in the upper peninsula of Michigan. An estimated 500 are run over on roads, starve, drown in a swimming pool or disappear.
December 19, 2000. At Miller Place, New York, a house under construction goes up in flames. “Building homes for the wealthy should not even be a priority”” the Earth Liberation Front writes in its communiqué.
February 7, 2004. In Charlottesville, Virginia the Earth Liberation Front caused over $30,000 in damages to a construction site, setting fire to a bulldozer and damaging other equipment on a site to be developed into a retail, commercial and residential community.
June 14, 2004. In West Jordan, Utah the Earth Liberation Front set a fire that caused about $1.5 million in damages to a lumber warehouse.
You get the idea. Nothing that actually means anything in the larger scheme of things or leads to any grand societal change, or ever will.
Wrongheaded Violence Not Just for Religious Psychos.
In one characteristically clueless, pointless ELF hit, in 2001 an ELF cell calling itself “The Family” decided to bomb the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture as part of a string of arsons and sabotage resulting in $80 million in damage in Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado.
The ELF firebombed the office of UW professor Toby Bradshaw at the Center for Urban Horticulture because they thought he was genetically engineering trees. He wasn’t, but his life’s work research was destroyed anyway. The terrorists remained unapologetic and unrepentant, leading one observer to correctly remark “Moral certainty which leads to violence is not just the province of religious psychos.”
As Perlstein told Newsweek, “Their targets, like [those of] every other terrorist group, are more symbols than they are useful. They’ll pick out something that will gain them attention. Their targets are not meant to win a war but to get attention. It’s just as logical as the radical anti-abortion activists who killed abortion doctors because they’re against murder. We’re not dealing with logic; we’re dealing with emotional feelings. To these people the environmental issues have become a religion. It’s beyond the mind. It’s beyond even emotion.”
Apologists for ELF like journalist Will Potter, author of the book Green Is The New Red, claim the Earth Liberation Front’s acts of vandalism and wanton destruction are opposed by the authorities not for being illegal or destructive to innocent people, but because they “directly threaten corporate profits by doing things like burning bulldozers or sabotaging animal research equipment… The entire animal rights and environmental movements, perhaps more than any other social movements, directly threaten corporate profits. They do it every day. Every time activists encourage people to go vegan, every time they encourage people to stop driving, every time they encourage people to consume fewer resources and live simply. Those boycotts are permanent, and these industries know it. In many ways, the Green Scare, like the Red Scare, can be seen as a culture war, a war of values.”
Ecoterrorists like to depict themselves the victims of a McCarthy-style witch hunt, targeted by a “Green Scare” reminiscent of the Red Scare of the 1950s. That they’re comfortable identifying themselves with militant Communists lends credence to those who see green activists as watermelons — green on the outside, red on the inside.
To this reporter’s knowledge Potter and the rest of the pro-ELF cadres have yet to elucidate how destroying a family’s home or car or blowing up a respected scientist’s life work is taking a brave stand against corporate profits and how prosecuting these crimes qualifies as unfair prosecution, but Perlstein’s comments are illuminating in this regard: Such a conviction is simply fanaticism, beyond the mind, beyond emotion, beyond rational reflection, at home in that dead zone where terrorists of all stripes have always been most comfortable.