For justice, the label must befit the crime
F or nearly 20 years, I've studied radical environmental movements. Fifteen years ago, I met with a small group of them in a forest in Tennessee . One among that group now faces sentencing before a federal court in Oregon for crimes attributed to the Earth and Animal Liberation fronts.
In the forest that day, the assembled activists shared their deep feelings of grief about the rapid decline of the Earth's ecosystems and some of the reasons that triggered their activism. The man now facing sentencing, Stanislas G. Meyerhoff, described how, as a boy, he had killed a bird with a slingshot and subsequently had became overwhelmed with remorse. That day in Tennessee , surrounded by others who understood, his grief returned, and he wept.
Today prosecutors are attempting to brand this man and nine co-defendants as terrorists, which could dramatically lengthen and worsen the conditions of their pending incarceration. U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken ruled Monday that federal sentencing guidelines allow her to impose a "terrorism enhancement" on the confessed eco-saboteurs. Soon she will decide whether the facts in each case merit such an enhancement.
Given the way the terrorism-enhancement statute was crafted, a key fact the judge must decide is whether the defendants sought to influence or retaliate against the government. But this focus leaves out critically important ethical issues, also related to intent, which should be taken into account during sentencing, including when considering whether to label these defendants "terrorists." One such issue is whether they intended to kill or maim anyone -- their actions clearly show that they did not. Equally important are the deeper motivations of the activists.
In general, radical environmental activists are motivated by an ethical commitment to life in all its forms. They believe that, as human societies expand, suffering among human and other creatures has followed, some of which even face extinction. They believe that most people are indifferent to this intensifying ecological cataclysm. They conclude that politics as usual is insufficient and the only remaining ethical course is to resist, even illegally. Some, like that young man in the Tennessee forest, also have more personal reasons to atone for their own environmental sins.
A just sentencing ought to recognize that these defendants have good reason for their frustration and alarm. Scientists have amply demonstrated the imminent danger posed by the ongoing and escalating deterioration of the Earth's living systems. One need not approve of the crimes to recognize that a rational and compassionate urgency was a part of the motivation for them.
These are cases that cry for a judicious temperament that recognizes the moral complexity of the current cases in ways that the letter of the law might not. If terrorism is to be a meaningful term, able to represent society's harshest condemnation, it should be reserved for those who intend to maim or kill in the pursuit of their causes.
It is not a label that fits these defendants.
Bron Taylor is a professor at the University of Florida and president of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. He is author of "Ecological Resistance Movements; the Global Emergence of Radical and Popular Environmentalism."