It could be said that terrorism was the word of the last decade: nothing evoked memory and emotion quite like it.
But few of us think of environmentalism as a cause that could produce the kind of radicalism we associate with terrorism. The U.S. government, however, thinks it is, proving it when they classified ‘eco-terrorists’ as the greatest domestic threat in the country.
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front traces the story of the most prominent radical environmentalist group through the proxy of Daniel McGowan, who was charged with terrorism after taking part in one of the group’s arson attacks. Through him, our view of this organization and its members becomes simultaneously disillusioned and sympathetic.
Spurred by cues from McGowan’s memory, the film shows, in wisps, the narrative of peaceful environmental protesters transforming into radical Earth Liberation Front arsonists.
Anger over deforestation is amplified by the police force’s protest-breaking tactics, which include point-blank pepper spray to the groin and eyes. Disillusionment with the U.S. Forest Service dissolves faith in working within the system. And the success of radicalism solidifies the movement’s transformation.
The film shows how easy it is to be swept up with radical sects of any ideals-based organization. A small group of hard-line environmentalists decided they were done with talks andÂ nonviolent protests after repeated failures. So they picked a target: a Cavel West meat-packing
plant that processed so many horses, the film says, that the groundwater of the nearby town was routinely tainted with their blood.
After ELF member Jake Ferguson and his crew burned the building to the ground in a nighttime raid, protesters saw the cold efficiency of militancy. Ferguson’s radical tactics did what decades of letter writing and protests couldn’t: Cavel West was never able to rebuild the facility; it was gone for good.
This is one of many moments in If a Tree Falls where director Marshall Curry uses specific events from the ELF’s history as launching pads for huge ethical questions. At what point does peaceful, democratic resistance reach its limit? Our faith in its power may be inflated after this year’s extraordinary events, but for every Arab Spring there are dozens if not hundreds of failures.
Is radicalism that can effect this type of seemingly positive change without causing anyone physical harm morally or ethically defensible?
The personal story of McGowan complicates this question. Though he admits fully to the arson, he faces a draconian sentence: life plus 335 years for what amounts to large-scale arson.
The government classified the ELF as a terrorist organization, and thus McGowan is being tried as a terrorist.
This raises another weighty question: is the word terrorism too radical? The line between ideal-motivated arson and terrorism is razor sharp in terms of acts, but in terms of association, objectives and repercussions, it’s a bit more pronounced. Nevertheless, the judge in McGowan’s case invoked a ‘terrorism enhancement,’ meaning McGowan will be labelled a successful federal terror case for the rest of his life.
It’s easy to see this as another example of overreaching laws surrounding the PATRIOT Act.
But as the film begins to explain how the ELF worked, its resemblance to a terrorist organization is uncanny. A loose network of dissociated cells operating without a central command or
communication structure, it trained its members to build improvised explosive devices, construct rock-solid alibis and communicate with a complex cipher. McGowan describes how a book would be chosen for each operation to act as a decoder. Numeric messages would be sent, with each digit corresponding to a specific word somewhere in the book. Not the methods of your average protesters.
But the ELF was responsible for no human deaths, and McGowan’s legal team argues this should exempt him from a grouping with figures like Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995. Defining terrorism does not, however, require the infliction of human harm.
A brief interview clip with an executive from a ELF-targeted lumber company speaks of feeling the need to constantly look over his shoulder after the attack. He and his colleagues installed alarm systems in their homes. Things we never used to think about, as he characterized it.
Isn’t this what terrorism really is? Inspiring a type of fear in the trusting public, causing them to question the relative faith they put in their fellow person and in their government? It’s hard not to agree with the label, but its ramifications are extreme. McGowan’s crime pales in comparison to other acts we’d call terrorism, but the sentence he faces doesn’t.
The emotionality of If a Tree Falls is astounding. And I don’t mean it’s overwhelming or extreme; it’s multidimensional and, above all, confusing. The film answers few questions and makes even fewer judgements. Rather than trying to persuade or instruct, it forces viewers to consider a host of ethical, legal, political and semantic questions. Active viewing at its best.
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front plays on Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. in H-110. For more details, go to cinemapolitica.org/concordia.