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Arsonists or Terrorists? Film Details Rise, Fall of Earth Liberation Front Cell

September 1, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front," filmmaker Marshal Curry looks at radical environmentalists who were named a top domestic terrorist threat by the FBI. This excerpt is part of The Economist Film Project series of independently produced films aired in partnership between The Economist and the NewsHour.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, another story from our Economist Film Project series — tonight, a film about eco-terrorism.

The Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental activist group, was named a domestic terrorist threat by the FBI in 2001.

In this documentary, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Marshall Curry follows the story of a former ELF member, Daniel McGowan. McGowan was arrested in 2005 for involvement in several fires and placed under house arrest in New York City to await trial.

Here’s an excerpt from the film “If a Tree Falls.”

DAN RATHER, news anchor: In Vail, Colo., the nation’s busiest ski resort was hit today by a fire. Arson is suspected.

PETER JENNINGS, ABC News: You may have heard of the Earth Liberation Front. The attorney general himself says it’s a domestic terrorist organization. The FBI says it is one of the most dangerous groups in the country.

MAN: The ELF has claimed responsibility for more than two dozen major acts of eco-terrorism since 1996.

MAN: The firebombings include attacks on lumber mills, wild horse corrals, and two meatpacking plants.

MAN: So far, not one of the cases has ever been solved, and authorities acknowledge they know next to nothing about the membership or the leadership of the organization.

DANIEL MCGOWAN, former Earth Liberation Front member: In 2001, I was involved with the Earth Liberation Front, and I was involved in two separate arsons in one year.

There was no one in any of these facilities. No one got hurt. No one was injured. And, yet, I’m facing life plus 335 years.

I was born in 1974 in Brooklyn. I moved to Rockaway when I was around three, Rockaway Beach in Queens. It’s like mostly working-class people. My dad was a cop in the New York Police Department. And I was a track runner, and, you know, I got scholarships and stuff like that. And then, when I got to college, I was like, oh, I guess I will major in business, because that’s practical.

I moved out West in October of ’98. And I started becoming a really different person. I had never seen trees like that before. It had a really profound impact on me. I have memories of, like, for the first time, seeing log trucks, you know, and being like, whoa.

You saw the mills, or you go into the forest and you stumble upon a clear cut. Like, it just blew me away. I couldn’t believe the fact that people accepted what was going on, just the arrogance of it. It made me think, like, why are we being so gentle? Why are we so gentle in our activism, when this is what’s happening, you know?

Sometimes, when you see things you love being destroyed, you just want to destroy those things.

STEVE SWANSON, Superior Lumber: The more radical environmental community have, in my opinion, a misconception about this industry and what we do.

Does it have an impact? Certainly. Nobody likes the looks of a fresh harvest, but we really do regrow these trees. I’m a third-generation lumberman. You can’t be in the lumber industry without having trees to cut. So it’s ridiculous for people to think we’re going to go out there and cut the last tree.

We were quite surprised that we had been targeted.

DANIEL MCGOWAN: I went up to Portland and wrote the communiqué and sent it in. Even then, it wasn’t real. It was just, like, still like kind of this cartoonish thing.

And it wasn’t real until I really saw the newspapers, seen the man from the company, I think Steve Swanson, just walking through these, like, charred remains. And I was just, like, holy crap.

It’s like, when you’re involved with it and you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to look at, like, all the consequences and, like, the real repercussions of that. Like, you know, did this action push them in a better direction? Did it scare them? Did it — did it help the movement in any capacity on old growth logging? There’s lots of questions, but I don’t think at the time I was asking those questions too much.

NARRATOR: A federal judge must determine whether the fires qualify for something called the terrorism enhancement. If the judge rules that Daniel’s fires were terrorism, Daniel could be sent to a new ultra- restrictive prison that was set up after 9/11 to house terrorists.

In the media and in the courtroom, the question is debated.

WOMAN: Eco-terrorism, terrorist acts by radical groups.

WOMAN: Eco-terrorists.

MAN: Eco-terrorism.

WOMAN: Environmental terrorists.

DANIEL MCGOWAN: People need to question, like, this buzzword and how its being used and how it’s, like, just become the new communist. It’s become the new — you know, it’s like the boogeyman. It’s a boogeyman word. It’s, like, whoever I really disagree with is a terrorist.

GREG HARVEY, Eugene Police Department: Some people have a problem with, you know, calling this terrorism. But when you’re basically making a threat where people go home at night wondering if they’re going to be a target, that’s what terrorism is.

STEVE SWANSON: After the fire, for a long time, you really looked over your shoulder. I mean, we put an alarm system in our home and things like that, that, before, we hadn’t thought about.

LISA MCGOWAN, sister of Daniel McGowan: You know, being a New Yorker with experiencing such serious terrorism firsthand, it’s like, how are you going to call someone who sets fire to an empty building a terrorist? It’s just inappropriate in every way, and it’s an insult.

LAUREN REGAN, attorney: The word terrorism, to me, is about killing humans. It’s about ending innocent life. And that is the antithesis of what these people did.

Concern for life was a very big part of the plan and implementation of these actions, and is why no one was ever harmed or injured in them — 1,200 incidents are being accredited to the ELF and ALF in this country, and not a single injury or death. Those statistics don’t happen by accident.

STEPHEN PEIFER, assistant U.S. attorney: Terrorist acts, under the definition of the law, can vary all over the board. There’s no requirement for purposes of terrorism that you physically endanger another person’s life. I mean, you don’t have to be Bonnie and Clyde to be a bank robber, and you don’t have to be al-Qaida to be a terrorist.

TIM LEWIS, activist/filmmaker: I don’t think these people are terrorists. I think the people and the agencies and the industry that they’re fighting are the true terrorists.

When you have got big timber companies coming into the Northwest, clear-cutting old growth forest, big oil companies with their big oil spills that cost billions and billions and billions of dollars, you don’t see the FBI raiding these executives’ homes or anything like that. They aren’t being threatened with life in prison. All they really do is just pay a fine and move on to the next court.

CHUCK TILBY, Eugene Police Department: The old adage that, you know, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter is true. You know, if you agree with their motives, wow, they’re a hero; they’re not a terrorist at all. If you disagree with their motives, then they’re a terrorist.

That’s tough, OK? That’s why it’s a whole lot cleaner to deal with crimes — crimes, non-crimes. OK, I’m good with that. I can do that. Arson is a crime. Good. I can do that, yes. Is it terrorism? We will find out.

JEFFREY BROWN: McGowan pled guilty to arson and conspiracy charges in 2007. The judge sentenced him to seven years in a special prison designed to hold terrorists. He is allowed limited communication with the outside world.

The film “If a Tree Falls” airs on the PBS series “POV” on Tuesday, Sept. 13. Please check your local listings.