On September 12, 2001, as emergency crews searched for survivors, Rep. Greg Walden warned Congress that "eco-terrorists" posed a threat "no less heinous than what we saw occur yesterday here in Washington and in New York." He was not alone: Rep. Don Young publicly speculated that the attack might have actually been the work of environmentalists. A month later, The Washington Times called for war against the "eco-al-Qaeda."
Comments like this were not gaffes. They were part of a carefully coordinated campaign that had been in the works long before 9/11. When planes hit the Twin Towers nearly ten years ago, most Americans saw an unprecedented tragedy. For some corporations and politicians, it was an unprecedented opportunity.
Since the early 1980s, special interests had been campaigning to label environmental activists and animal rights activists as "terrorists." The rapid growth of these social movements, and a public increasingly sympathetic to their goals thanks to groups like Greenpeace, Peta, and others, was seen as a threat to corporate profits. A new word, "eco-terrorist," was created in the mid '80s with the hope that it would demonize activists and shift public opinion. This tactic had some success over the years, but for the most part it remained on the fringes.
Then came 9/11.
Fear is the currency of those hungry for power, and in the aftermath of the attacks, political opportunists used their new wealth indiscriminately. They hired public relations firms, wrote white papers, held Congressional hearings, introduced legislation, and briefed law enforcement. Eventually, what was once a corporate smear tactic became a top government priority; John Lewis, the FBI's lead official in charge of domestic terrorism, has said "eco-terrorism" is "the number one domestic terrorism threat."
According to Lewis, "There's been no other movement that has brought as much violence and destruction and vandalism." But is that true? These movements, like all social justice movements, have a wide range of activists. Some write letters. Some protest. And some, such as Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, have vandalized SUVs, freed animals and burned buildings.
Even the most radical groups have always stopped short of physical violence, though, and while many of their crimes have hurt corporate profits, none have harmed human beings.
The same cannot be said for anti-abortion extremists like Scott Roeder, who murdered Dr. George Tiller; tax protester Joseph Stacks, who flew a plane into an IRS building; and other right-wing groups who have admittedly created weapons of mass destruction. Increasingly violent rhetoric has been mainstreamed within these movements, from the top down. Right-wing bloggers have called for vandalism in response to health care reform, and Tea Party members have carried assault rifles to political rallies.
Is it possible that such crimes might have been prevented, if "eco-terrorism" had not been manufactured to be the "number one" priority? In a 2003 audit, the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General warned that the FBI's focus on animal rights and environmental activists placed public safety at risk. The audit advised the FBI to stop investigating these activists as terrorists. The FBI's definition of domestic terrorism has become too broad, the report said: "A more focused definition may allow the FBI to more effectively target its counterterrorism resources." The FBI refused.
In recent years, the campaigns against "eco-terrorism" have not slowed down. They have expanded to include nonviolent civil disobedience.
In July, environmental activist Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in prison for disrupting an oil and gas auction by placing fake bids. The auction was later ruled illegal, but DeChristopher had cost corporations millions of dollars. Soon after his arrest, Utah state Rep. Mike Noel introduced legislation labeling DeChristopher's effective use of nonviolent civil disobedience as "eco-terrorism."
In four other states this year, legislation was introduced to single out animal rights and environmental activists who expose cruelty on factory farms. The meat, egg and dairy industries had a hand in drafting some of the bills, and state lawmakers aggressively lobbied on their behalf. As Florida state Sen. Jim Norman has said of undercover investigations by animal activists: "It's almost like terrorism."
These misplaced priorities should concern all Americans, regardless of whether you agree with activists or their tactics. As most Americans are concerned about jobs and the national debt, counterterrorism officials have spied on mainstream nonprofits, conducted training drills against environmentalists and investigated vegan potlucks.
More importantly, the corporate-led campaigns are a threat to the First Amendment. The reckless use of the word terrorism, combined with new laws, disproportionate prison sentences, and government surveillance, has what lawyers call a "chilling effect." These tactics don't outlaw First Amendment activity, but they make everyday people think twice about speaking up for what they believe.
These are concerns that President Obama expressed as a senator, when he responded to a Congressional hearing on "eco-terrorism." "In our quest to apprehend these criminals," he wrote, "I hope we are not headed down the path of infringing on the ability of legitimate advocacy organizations to express their opinions and to raise funds in order to do so."
We have gone down that path, and it's time to change course. Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, this is an opportunity to not only remember the lives lost, but to take a critical look at how the tragedy has been exploited.
To be clear, "eco-terrorism" is only one example of this. But if we are to move forward, we need to recognize the broad scope of what has been changed. We need to abandon the bumper-sticker slogans of "we will never forget" and confront the uncomfortable reality that, when it comes to civil liberties, too much has been forgotten.