Green radicals are ready to kill for their cause – ex-member of US Senate Environment Committee

The violence at environmental protests in North Dakota made international headlines – and is raising questions about the rising determination of the extreme inside the growing green movement in America. Is the danger of environmental terrorism real? We ask former Director of Communications for the US Senate Environment Committee Marc Morano.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Marc Morano, welcome to the show. It’s good to have you on our programme.Researchers of domestic extremism in the U.S. say that the next wave of terrorism will be from radical greens. Is that an exaggeration? Is that simply the latest scarecrow?

Marc Morano: No, I don’t think so. I think if you go back to, like, the first Earth day, for instance, the environmental movement has become in essence activated and radicalised, many elements of them are extreme. I think, what’s happening now, to make this more relevant, is, first of all, they see the success of groups like ISIS and how one individual who may not even be organised with a larger group, one individual act can cause chaos and draw attention to a cause. So specifically what’s happening right now is the climate change issue. Many environmentalists and mainstream environmentalists are terrified and think that the planet is going to be doomed. And the rhetoric coming from even the top leaders at the United Nations, top scientists who used to be affiliated with NASA are in a way giving potential eco-terrorists the justification to do it. They are saying that essentially we are doomed, that the civilization is at an end and we must stop this.The attitude of many activists looking at the climate scare is that we must act alone because governments are not acting or are not acting enough or in many cases just acting to defy their concerns. So, I do think that the environmental movement is going to be using the climate campaign or the climate scare, if you will, to justify more extreme in the next 5-10 years. 

SS: The oil industry is actually suing Greenpeace and other environmental organisations for inciting terrorism during the Dakota Pipeline protests. Now, if the lawsuit didn’t have merit, the corporations wouldn’t have started it - so what will happen if the likes of Greenpeace are convicted of inciting terrorism?

MM: It’s going to be hard to do that in court. Court cases like that are very difficult. But, yes, in the case of the Dakota Pipeline they are talking about up to 2 billion dollars in damages for this environmental protest. And I think, it’s going to have a major effect but not necessarily against the actual eco-terrorists themselves. Some could argue that Greenpeace is a radical environment group but they are no eco-terrorists per se, though they’ve done civil disobedience. So if groups themselves lose a court case it can have a perverse effect of inspiring individual groups or cells. Many of these cells (the Animal Liberation Group, the Earth Liberation Movement) drive across the country in a car and they pick up the radical members they’ve met on social media. It’s very hard to actually track and find them. But you’re right, big industry is fighting back on them now and it’s going to be a very interesting court case coming up to see how this is decided. 

SS: The Dakota Pipeline protests received so much attention nationwide, because of the initial heavy-handedness of the police. Why didn’t the oil companies and the state work with environmental activists - instead of ignoring their opinion? The whole crisis could have been avoided…

MM: In the case of the Dakota Pipeline they got the native Americans involved. Originally they had hearing after hearing and there wasn’t too much interest to it, certainly not among the native Americans. And the environmentalists allegedly recruited the native Americans to get involved which really brought the Dakota Access to life. It was actually not the police but the private security by the Dakota Access Pipeline who came in and were very rough with Mace and other things when they first got there, there is a lot of video footage of that. That’s always a good kind of question  - how does the industry handle this when people do that kind of defiance and disobedience.

SS: Also, I’m just wondering, is it right to use the word ‘terrorism’ here? Terrorism means to instill terror or fear in people, I mean, blowing up Twin Towers is terrorism, or shooting at Charlie Hebdo and blowing up London metro is terrorism.  But eco-activists targeting machinery - are they terrorists really?…

MM: If you would go into the semantics I would say, yes, it’s an eco-terrorism. You don’t say terrorism, you say eco-terrorism. And the reason for that is whether they are blowing up an animal rights lab or torching SUVs in the parking lot and this goes even further… When I was one of the researchers in the United States Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, we had a hearing, that’s before I got there, with one of the former Animal Liberation Front leaders Dr Jerry Vlasak who actually openly said that for every scientist experimenting on animals that they can kill. They can save untold amounts of animals, and they (one of the leaders of AFL and other radical environmental groups) were perfectly willing and openly calling for killing scientists experimenting on animals because they would save animals’ lives  and the scientists’ lives are expendable because they were talking about only a few scientists and many animals being saved. So, this is threatening people. When a logging protester puts spikes in a tree and someone comes by with a chainsaw, the chainsaw breaks when it hits the spike. There have been at least several reported incidents of people being massively injured and disfigured. So if people do get hurt it’s a form of terror. It terrifies the people in the industry doing it. And whether right now the target is being the pipeline protesters Exxonmobil is filling in the blank. They are now being told that they are guilty by NASA’s former lead scientists, by the way, of crimes against humanity...

SS: Marc, when you are saying it’s only semantics I feel like it’s not just semantics. The federal government classifies eco-activism as ‘terrorism’ and makes it a very potent legal weapon against the accused. People charged with arson in protests against excessive logging in the 2000s were facing life in prison. They had to agree to plea deals, and served their sentences in terrible conditions - I mean, they are just kids, they don’t behead people, they don’t shoot people, why should we be so tough on them?

MM: This comes down to the law enforcement. You can actually use the same argument with drug laws in the United States. Should some marijuana offender who buys from a local dealer have the same kind of automatic jail sentences after a couple of times, like a cocaine or heroin dealer? I think, what the federal guidelines are doing here is that they are treating the so-called gateway eco-terrorists very seriously so they can nip it in the bud. So this is the argument for the law enforcement. I’m not sure what the actual line there is. But you do need to distinguish between civil disobedience and … Again, I make a reference to NASA’s lead global warming scientist James Hansen who’s just retired a few years ago, but he’s been arrested at least half a dozen times protesting pipelines in the United States because of global warming. That’s not eco-terror but when you go a step further, when you get in to property destruction and threats, people get hurt, when you go after scientists who do experiments and gloating about it in congressional testimonies like Jerry Vlasak, the former ALF leader, did, then you go into a different area. But you’re absolutely right: there has to be a very fine line between the civil disobedience and the full-blown eco-terrorism.   

SS: In a famous case in the UK, discovered by the Guardian newspaper, a government agent infiltrated an eco-activist group and then coerced them to damage a power plant. Why are governments provoking activists into radical action? To have an added excuse to crackdown on them?

MM: This is something you see all the time. This is why when they do mob informants and other sorts of infiltration, it’s always called by a legal word “entrapment”. Obviously this could be the case of government overreaching. If a government is going to infiltrate a group it just should be for information. When they go beyond and encourage acts that they can arrest people that becomes problematic in itself. If you go throughout history governments have been the most violent institutions in the world. You hate to give them too much power when they do that. However, when they go after groups that are potentially damaging life property and making this kind of threats it makes sense that they infiltrate but they have to draw, again, a fine line between egging them on to get trapped and make them do even worse things than they would otherwise do.

SS: I read you saying that you had to deal with eco-terrorism when you were the communications director for the Senate's Environment and Public Works committee. Is there pressure on lawmakers from eco-groups like PETA, which hampers the crackdown on extremism? Are politicians afraid they will look bad going after those who defend animal rights, for instance?

MM: When I was with the United States Senate Environment and Public Works we had multiple hearings and we supported the federal legislation… If you do more than ten-thousand-dollars damage it becomes a federal violation or eco-terrorism. Otherwise it is still dealt within the state on a local level. In terms of politicians standing up to this, you know, it depends on the news cycle and what we’re talking about. When it’s torching SUVs or going after logging, especially if you’re a political leader from a logging area or from an automobile industry it’s easy to stand up. The other politicians who are not directly affected, or whose constituencies are not directly affected, generally do not want to get involved in the eco-terrorism things. First of all, it’s because of the nature of business: it’s usually very isolated, small, doesn’t seem to be well-coordinated in sense that it’s not something that happens daily on the news …

SS: Animal rights groups are more prone to taking drastic measures than environmental defenders. I was wondering, why. Do you have an answer to that?

MM: I actually interviewed and covered Peter Singer, the Princeton bioethicist whose famous quote was ‘Christianity is harmful to animals’. The idea that motivates animal rights activists is that humans and animals are in actual equal play. They believe that humans have no more rights than animals. When I interviewed Peter Singer a few years back he said that if termites were eating his home he didn’t know if he could hire a team to exterminate the termites because the termites have equal rights to life as he has access to his house. This is their ideology. So when they see humans essentially acting above our species, if we were clearing out a forest or if we use animals for experimentation, domesticate animals for farming or eat animals, that offends their entire worldview that animals and humans are on the same plane. This is one of the biggest motivators and one of the reasons that animal rights activist part of this is one of the strongest and most activist wings of eco-terrorism.

SS: Like you said earlier, some animal rights groups target not just slaughterhouses but also institutions of science - like labs, where things are tested on animals. Animal testing is going out of fashion and it’s not cool to do it in, say, cosmetics. Are scientists going to give up animal testing altogether because of the pressure from the radical greens?

MM: Here’s what happens in a free society: PETA and other groups like to make videos how, for instance, chicken mcnuggets in McDonald’s are made or how animals are treated in slaughterhouses. When people watch a video like that (in a lot of types you can see a propaganda where they pick the worst possible scenario), they grow seek. So they can actually influence public opinion. I would say, scientists, especially in cosmetics, are facing much more public opinion backlash against what they would consider unnecessary or at least unvital research on animals because the public opinion is shifted, not because of the acts of eco-terror but because of the promotion of the cause of it in mass media. Kids are indoctrinated at the very young age that they have to be green, that humans have destroyed the Earth so kids are growing up brainwashed with this ideology. As we go forward it’s going harder and harder for scientists to do that. In medical research it’ll be still harder to stop that [animal testing], but with cosmetics and other things people are cutting back because public opinion isn’t there.

SS: But I’m really worried about science: a UCLA behavioural science professor’s home was firebombed, and his colleagues were bullied into giving up research in behavioural science of apes in the mid-2000s. But is eco-terrorism powerful enough to actually set back scientific progress in these fields?

MM: Not yet. But if they become more well-coordinated (there’s a projection that within the next five years eco-terrorism is going to come on its own), yes, it will. In the climate debate,  scientists who are sceptical about the United Nations - Al Gore view have been driven from the field. Roger Pielke Jr. has been intimidated and investigated, actually his 11-year-old son asked him if he was going to jail. He left the field of climate research just because of political hassle. If you’re talking about threatening livelihood it gets that much more intense. A few years ago in the Mall in DC I interviewed pipeline protesters who said that they would stop the Keystone Pipeline ‘by any means necessary’. I asked if ‘any means necessary’ means violence and they repeated: ‘By any means necessary’. When pipeline workers and their families are starting to get threatened or explosions go off that will have an impact. But then there will also be a backlash, lawsuits and more federal law enforcement will come down on them. 

SS: Hold on, with its opposition to stem cell research, is animal rights extremism coming closer in position to more conservative and religious right-wing groups? Can there be an alliance between these two for a common goal?

MM: That’s a good question. As for the stem cell research, we had George W. Bush in the United States who did a compromise when he was a president because pro-life groups who didn’t want stem cells to be used to create life to destroy it that there have to be only existing lines when stem cells research can be used. I don’t know if pro-life groups would align themselves with the eco-terrorist groups, however, there is a certain political kinship between them and some environmental groups, but not necessarily with the radical eco-terror groups. But that’s just a kind of staff, again, you have labs… I remember I interviewed Christopher Reeve, the old actor who played Superman, who came to DC to save the Silver Spring monkeys because they were doing research on them. It was not a radical movement at that time, but people got so worked up over that. So if research labs are attacked it will have a chilling effect on the scientists that work there and the companies that, actually, do the research. 

SS: What’s your opinion, is animal cruelty justified when it’s done in the name of science? Should scientists be limited by what they can and can’t do to animals as test subjects?

MM: Yes, you should have serious guidelines and you should take into account pain issues, what kind of pain pills you give them, you wouldn’t want an animal suffer unnecessarily. And you should try to reduce animal testing to the absolute minimum that it would be absolutely necessary in a society. And I think that’s happened. Public outrage over that and more guidelines and strict inheritance in oversight have made long strides towards doing that because public just doesn’t like the idea of animals being… You know, it’s certainly anything involving cruelty, and it’s one of those things where one person’s scientific experiment with humane treatment is another person’s cruelty. It’s hard to justify. Some animal rights activists are just upset with the idea that we eat meat which makes no sense by the way because animals eat other animals and we’re supposed to be equal with animals but suddenly they don’t want humans eating other animals. So, in a sense, they are saying that animals have right to eat other animals but humans don’t have the right to eat other animals even though they think we are all equal. A lot of logical inconsistency there.

SS: Tell me something, even when we’re not talking about radical fringe groups, like the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front, we have the more mainstream Greenpeace: they use direct action too, but avoid the destruction of property - not including ramming ships in open seas. Why is Greenpeace considered more acceptable than those fringe groups that are called terrorists?

MM: Well, you know, they have been jailed. Some of the countries have tried to declare Greenpeace activities terrorism. But, again, there’s always a fine line. Greenpeace generally stays within the line of civil disobedience, but you have activists like Tim DeChristopher from Utah whom people want to declare a terrorist because he went after a lot of industrial activities through a lot of lawsuits that cost huge amounts of money and caused huge delays to projects. And they are saying this is a form of financial terrorism. So, you can go through civil disobedience, you can go through physical violence, financial implications… People have different definitions of terrorism and its impact. Again, I did mention semantics and you can actually go back and forth. But where semantics are not involved is when you’re affecting physical property and people’s lives - that’s where it is full-blown ecoterrorism and everything else short of that is a little different. You’re delaying a project, locking access to a project. Those are time honoured traditions of all groups, not just animal rights or environmental activists, but going back to the civil rights movement.

SS: PETA is another mainstream organisation with a lot of celebrity support, and its methods are more like intimidation, public shaming, shock ads. Can you accuse them of extremism if the war they fight is with words?

MM: Well, it depends on how far they go. One of the interesting things about PETA is that they set up their own shelters and they raise a lot of money and donations. And these shelters, I believe, have one of the highest kill rates of any animal shelters. In other words, they take in these animals, try to take care of them and they realise it’s difficult and this ends up having to put them down. So PETA has its own PR problem when it comes to that. When I was on Capitol Hill PETA generally came out doing nude protests. They paint their bodies, they like to do a lot of silly and more humorous stuff, but they’ve also inspired that kind of strain: people getting their fur mink coats spray-painted, if you don’t like that. They’ve encouraged that kind of activism, certainly, earlier on, maybe they mellowed in recent years. But these groups have, actually, elements and members on the fringe that would be inspired and radicalised beyond the scope of what that group wants. And, I think, the FBI often looks for those signs of radicalism and we obviously have that. Going back to the Unabomber  - Unabomber Ted Kaczynski was inspired before he sent those letters. There were analyses of the Unabomber’s writings vs. Al Gore’s writings, and they were actually very similar. You can see when mainstream environmentalism can be corrupted and taken by someone who is not right, like Ted Kaczynski wasn’t mentally right, and then radicalised and used to go off to killing people.  

SS: Any radical thought starts with a sharp disappointment in the status-quo. So with environmental activism, it is the government's lack of action about pollution, wildlife preservation, etc. making people think radically. Why isn’t Congress or the White House doing more on that?

MM: Well, while they’re are doing more on the issues that would get people upset. I mean, first of all, when you’re talking, for instance, on climate, the ideal is when Hurricane Harvey hits and suddenly you have all the mainstream, not fringe groups, eventually environmental activists including Bill Nye, not just with Harvey but before that, calling for jailing and suggesting that climate sceptics should be put in jail for fraud, for not going along…

SS: Ok, I wouldn’t go that far. That, of course, is very extreme, and I know you’re a climate change denier, but whatever your thoughts on climate change, greenhouse gas emission is a fact, pollution is a fact, urban sprawl, I mean, we humans do leave quite a damaging footprint on the environment and that’s a fact. Why can’t the White House and the Senate do something about it?

MM: Well, White House and the Senate do something about it. For instance, since 1970 we have radically improved our air and water quality in the United States at the same time increasing our economic growth and population. And we’ve done that through technological innovation and smart environmental policy. So, we’ve radically improved all of that. What I’m telling, and I’m not trying to obsess on climate here, I’m just saying that climate is going to be the big issue. This is where the radicals are, this is where they try to sentence people to death, call for numerous trials, put them in jail. That is the bigger issue. That and habitat destruction, even bigger although… I think that is the climate change issue because people look at it as Earth doom of end times, people view it as end times. And that is why that is going to be the driver going forward. We can look back and say animal rights has been huge. That is going to be climate eco-terrorism of the future we going to be looking at.    

SS: Alright, Marc. That’s for being with us today. We were talking to Marc Morano, former director of communications for the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, discussing the thin line between activism and terrorism when it comes to environmental protests.