When Barack Obama became president, there was reason to believe that he might make a shift away from the "eco-terrorism" priorities of the Bush administration. As a senator, he responded to a 2005 Congressional hearing on eco-terrorism by saying that the threat from environmentalists was dwarfed by that of other groups. There were only 60 eco-terrorism crimes in 2004, he said, but there were, according to the FBI, more than 7,400 hate crimes in 2003.
"In our quest to apprehend these criminals, 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," Obama said in a letter to the committee. "I do not want Americans to equate groups that advocate violence with mainstream environmental organizations."
However, the labeling of environmentalists and animal rights activists as "domestic terrorists" has continued, and even expanded, under Obama's watch.
For instance, in my book Green Is the New Red: An Insider's Account of a Social Movement under Siege, I investigate a little-known law called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. It singles out animal rights activists for disproportionate penalties if they cause a loss of profits to the corporations they target.
One of the key provisions of the law is that it wraps up any activist who instills a "reasonable fear" in the people they protest. When I testified before Congress against the law, I argued that it's impossible to talk about "reasonable fear" at a time when corporations and industry groups have taken out full-page ads calling the Humane Society a terrorist organization. They are manufacturing this fear to make the unreasonable seem reasonable.
The first prosecution under this law was through Obama's Justice Department. The charges? The four activists arrested were not accused of killing people, sending anthrax, or even releasing animals from fur farms. They allegedly distributed fliers, protested with bandannas covering their faces, and wrote slogans on the street with children's sidewalk chalk.
Recently, after the killing of Osama bin Laden, there was again some small reason to believe that there might be a turning point away from these misguided policies. Instead, what has been striking is how much this terrorism rhetoric, and this way of viewing the world, has become institutionalized.
President Obama said that Osama bin Laden may be dead but "we will never forget" the legacy of what has happened. But we have forgotten. We have forgotten the uproar against the Patriot Act that was passed in the middle of the night. We have forgotten that "terrorism" was not always a household word heard on the news every single day. And we have forgotten what freedoms have been sacrificed in the name of an ever-growing threat.
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Will Potter is an award-winning reporter who has written for publications including the Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News, and Legal Affairs and has testified before the U.S. Congress about his reporting. He is the creator of www.GreenIsTheNewRed.com, where he blogs about the Green Scare.
Books mentioned in this post
Will Potter is the author of Green Is the New Red: An Insider's Account of a Social Movement under Siege