In a brief Associated Press account of the sentencing of supposed ELF operative Briana Waters, the New York Times June 20 uncritically uses the loaded term “ecoterrorist” in the headline. If you actually read the blurb, it turns out she is accused of serving as a look-out in an arson attack on a research center at the University of Washington Botanic Gardens. Nobody was killed, nobody was injured. Was this an act of “terrorism”?
Washington: Ecoterrorist Sentenced to Six Years
A California woman convicted in an ecoterrorism attack at the University of Washington has been sentenced to six years in prison and to pay $6 million in restitution. A Seattle television station, KIRO, reported that the woman, Briana Waters of Berkeley, had asked for mercy because she has a 3-year-old daughter. Prosecutors had recommended a 10-year sentence. Ms. Waters, 32, was sentenced in Federal District Court in Tacoma after being convicted of arson on March 6. She was a student at Evergreen State College in 2001 when she acted as a lookout as others set fire to the Center for Urban Horticulture. The Earth Liberation Front, a loosely organized radical environmental group that has been linked to acts of ecoterrorism in the Northwest, claimed responsibility because it believed, mistakenly, that a researcher was genetically modifying poplar trees. The blaze, which destroyed the plant research center, was one of at least 17 fires set from 1996 to 2001 by the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front. In all, more than a dozen people were arrested; four suspects remain at large.
In a story on the case in Salon March 27, “Is Briana Waters a Terrorist?”, writer Tracy Tullis quotes Lauren Regan, director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, OR: “There’s a question of whether burning property is really the equivalent of flying a plane into a building and killing humans.”
Well yes, that’s a question—but is it the question? 9-11, after all, is a pretty tough act to follow. On one hand, federal prosecutors are still milking outrage at 9-11 to paint with the broad brush of “terrorism” any act of physical sabotage or property damage in advance of a political cause. On the other hand, while arson may not be exactly terrorism, it isn’t exactly not terrorism either. It is in a gray area where the lines can be blurred. After all, there are plenty of things which we would all agree constitute terrorism (just check the daily headlines from Yemen, Algeria, the Philippines, Spain, India, Sri Lanka, etc.) that fall significantly short of “flying a plane into a building and killing [thousands of] humans.”
So there is a degree of disingenuousness on both sides of this particular rhetorical debate. Briana’s own support website, SupportBrianna.org, to its credit, avoids the whole rhetorical issue and uses the less loaded and more precise term “arson.” It also emphasizes:
Briana steadfastly maintains her innocence. She is a peaceful woman who believes in non-violence. In 2001, she directed a documentary, entitled Watch, which tells the moving true story of a peaceful campaign that built a coalition between environmentalists, loggers, and the residents of Randle, Washington to save the old-growth forest on Watch Mountain.
Briana’s family, friends, and supporters were heartbroken and left in disbelief when a federal jury found her guilty of two counts of arson on March 6, 2008. She is currently detained while awaiting sentencing. She faces a mandatory five-year minimum prison term, potentially subject to an enhancement of up to twenty years.
See our last post on the green scare.