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Take care with 'eco-terrorist' label
It's hard to see how the same word used to describe Osama bin Laden could apply to Chelsea D. Gerlach, but Judge Ann L. Aiken of the federal district court in Eugene had no trouble legally labeling to the 30-year-old a terrorist last week -- an "eco-terrorist."

"It was your intention to scare, frighten and intimidate people and government through the very dangerous act of arson," Aiken told Gerlach when she sentenced her to nine years in prison. Gerlach was part of a 10-member group connected to the Earth Liberation front and the Animal Liberation Front.

The 10, who called themselves "the family," were convicted of destroying a timber research center, an electrical transmission tower, a Eugene police station and a ski resort in Vail, Colo. They caused similar damage in five other Western states.

Two of them have been sentenced, and the rest could go before Aiken this week.

We can't say strongly enough that we have no sympathy for their actions. They accomplished nothing in the way of environmental awareness, instead harming the efforts of legitimate environmental concerns. Under even the most charitable interpretation, their actions were counterproductive, as they didn't derail the enterprises they targeted; they only necessitated their replication - at even greater environmental and human cost.

In fact, Ms. Gerlach herself, in showing a change of heart, told the judge that she sees a shift to a more thoughtful approach to environmental stewardship that cannot "be accomplished by force."

Webster's defines a terrorist as "One who utilizes the systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve political objectives, while disguised as a civilian non-combatant." In that regard, one could argue that Gerlach and her co-defendants met the definition.

But if the term becomes synonymous with anyone who questions the cultural, political or legal status quo as regards the use of resources, treatment of animals or conservation, then we see trouble ahead -- and so do those who fear that is just what this precedent will lead to.

For instance, will those who cut a chain to enter a federal forest to protest old-growth logging -- which may resume if the Bush administration has its way -- also qualify as "eco-terrorism?"

It is one thing to punish a destructive and short-sighted group of self-styled eco warriors. But it is quite another to attempt to demonize or derail a legitimate -- and overdue -- thoughtful approach to resource use. Also, there is the danger that such people could be seen as martyrs. As we know, radicals in other parts of the world have no trouble attracting converts when self-aggrandizement and martyrdom is part of the deal.

So, we will have to see what -- other than inflamed headlines -- this "ecoterrorism" label will mean to mainstream environmentalists. We will be watching carefully.


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