Environmentalists at Risk From Anti-Terrorist Laws
April 17th, 2010

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Dear John,

I heard your speech at a major conference recently, and while I admire your integrity, I take exception to something you said. You seem to believe that non-violent environmentalists are at risk from anti-terrorist legislation. Please, stop exaggerating. Have you become paranoid? Or are you now supporting the people who burn SUVs at car dealerships?


Dear Darlene,

Thanks for your question.

I was specifically referring to legislation introduced into the Washington state legislature by State Senator Val Stevens of Olympia (R-39), called the “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act.”

The bill invokes the specter of terrorism to restrict long-standing political rights to non-violent protest. Specifically, it defines terrorist “eco-terrorist organizations” as “two or more persons organized for the purpose of supporting any politically motivated activity intended to obstruct or deter any persons from participating in an activity involving animals or…natural resources.”

Under the cover of targeting people who spike trees slated for logging, or burn SUVs at car dealerships, the legislation’s definition of “eco-terrorist” is so broad that it would include citizens signing a petition to save old-growth forests, passing out vegetarian literature, or simply joining a group like the Sierra Club or EarthSave.

According to Ralph G. Neas, President of People for the American Way, “This dangerously broad definition of ‘terrorist’ would catch anybody who’s ever sent in $10 to save the pandas. It’s a thinly disguised effort to squash environmental activism and intimidate citizens who want to speak out.”

The bill would create a law enforcement database of “eco-terrorists.” As of this writing, the bill has not yet passed, but the Senate has passed a budget bill that includes $50,000 for the database.

Washington is not the only state where this is happening. The Washington legislation was drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has drafted virtually identical bills that have been introduced in New York, Texas, Hawaii, Arizona, and South Carolina. Furthermore, U.S. Congresswoman Darlene Hooley of Oregon has introduced a federal version in the U.S. House of Representatives.

I don’t believe it’s paranoid to see that these bills are intended to limit the first amendment rights of environmental and animal welfare organizations and activists. And I fail to see how they would do anything at all to prevent real terrorism. If our elected officials can’t tell the difference between the Sierra Club and Al Qaeda, we’re in big trouble.

No, I don’t support people who burn SUVs at car dealerships. That’s not really what this legislation is about. If ALEC gets its way and bills are passed that criminalize dissent, the people who want to burn SUVs will continue to do so. But what will change, and what to me is of immense importance, is that it will become increasingly dangerous to speak your conscience, and to advocate for a sane, healthy, and sustainable way of life.

I don’t believe it’s paranoid to recognize the threat posed by groups such as ALEC. Based in Washington, DC, ALEC is funded by right-wing foundations and by more than 300 corporations and trade associations.

Corporations fund ALEC because they want to re-write the laws which regulate their activities. Although ALEC refers to itself as a membership organization for state legislators (and pays for state legislators to travel to its meetings), its primary function is to enable strip-mining and chemical companies to write environmental laws, drug companies to write prescription drug laws, insurance companies and HMO executives to write health care laws, and fast food chains that pay low wages to write laws that would abolish the minimum wage and worker safety laws.

ALEC has produced hundreds of bills designed to enhance corporate special interests. These bills support the increased use of fossil fuels, and expanded drilling and mining on public lands. And they limit the role of scientific evidence in policy decisions, especially those regarding global climate change. ALEC is vehemently opposed to efforts to control greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide.

ALEC’s “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act” is one example of the group’s efforts. Another of their bills that has also been introduced into state legislatures is called “The Environmental Literacy Improvement Act.” It creates an “Environmental Education Council” that would approve “acceptable environmental education materials” for schools. The bill states that text materials must “not be designed to change student behavior, attitudes or values” nor “include instruction in political action skills nor encourage political action activities.” So much for a vibrant democracy.

Another bill, the “Pesticide Preemption Act,” would eliminate a local government’s ability to control pesticide “registration, notification of use, advertising and marketing, distribution, applicator training and certification, storage, transportation, disposal, disclosure of confidential information or product composition.” In other words, it renders communities defenseless to the risks of toxic pesticide exposure from unsafe application methods, poisonous ingredients. And characteristically of ALEC’s bills, it would limit a community’s rights to know about such risks.

I wish our world was such that only paranoid people feared that our precious freedoms and environment were under attack. I wish I were exaggerating, and my concerns for our future were not based in reality. It would be comforting if these threats were only imagined. Regrettably, however, this is not the case. ALEC is extraordinarily well funded, and has written bills to roll back environmental protection, dismantle public education, eliminate advances in civil rights laws, and undermine working families. The threats of which I speak are quite real, as are ALEC’s efforts to see them enacted into law. We must not allow them to succeed.

It may seem naïve to speak of love when talking about groups like ALEC, but I believe that who we are and who we become are dependent in large part on the quality and the force of the love we can bring to bear on behalf of life. We are better able to fight such groups if we draw strength from our love of our Earth, our love of democratic principles, and our commitment to free speech.

There is a lot of darkness in our world and country today. One of my mentors, Martin Luther King, Jr., once said something that I believe speaks to our current moment as much as when he said it:

“Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future… When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

In dedication for a thriving, just, and sustainable way of life,


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