War on (eco) terror extends to the West

by Stephanie Paige Ogburn

The federal government continues to crack down on ecological saboteurs: In mid-May, four people in Colorado were indicted for the 1998 Vail ski resort fires. The accused belong to a group of 13 defendants named in an Oregon indictment, which lists 65 counts for crimes across the West, including conspiracy and arson (HCN, 4/17/06: Eco-terrorism and the Trial of the Century).

The Oregon Attorney General’s Office has weighed down the case with a loaded word — "terrorism" — which the U.S. Patriot Act defines as "acts dangerous to human life" intended to coerce the general public or influence government policy. Domestic terrorism charges significantly increase criminal penalties: An arsonist who might normally receive 42 months could face life imprisonment if his crime is construed as an act of terror.

According to Gary Perlstein, professor emeritus of criminal justice at Portland State University, the ski resort fires fall well inside the accepted definition of domestic terrorism; activists are not being targeted or sentenced unfairly, he says. In Oregon, the terrorist label has spanned both sides of the ideological divide: Shelley Shannon, who set fire to abortion clinics, was sentenced to 20 years in 1995 for "terrorist" crimes.

Activist groups say the "T-word" should apply only to cases where someone is injured or killed. "Is it any worse if someone burns down a building for political reasons as opposed to financial?" asks Craig Weinerman, an assistant federal defender in the case.

The trial in Oregon is scheduled to begin on Oct. 31.

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