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Know the West

The latest trend in name-calling


The Cold War was actually rather heated when I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s. America was more or less "at war" with the Communists as a matter of foreign policy. It affected our domestic discourse because politicians so often sought to discredit their opponents as "Communist sympathizers" or "comsymps" -- "soft on Communism," "just a little bit pink" or outright "pinkos."

Something as basic as the integration of public facilities could be, and often was, denounced as part of a global Communist conspiracy to weaken America. As Strom Thurmond of South Carolina put it in 1961, "It has been revealed time and time again that advocacy by Communists of social equality among diverse races ... is the surest method for the destruction of free governments."

But despite everything, the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. And although China remains Communist in theory, in practice it is proving quite talented at capitalism.

Today, pinkos are passe. So what do you do when the need arises to discredit political opponents, especially on environmental issues?

Simple. We're fighting what President George W. Bush calls a "global war on terror." So instead of accusing your adversaries of being commies, which is so 20th century, move into the 21st century. Call them terrorists.

Witness the recent press release from an outfit called "Americans for American Energy," based in Golden, Colo. At issue was the leasing of the Roan Plateau in western Colorado for oil and gas drilling.

Part of the plateau was originally set aside as a "Naval Oil Shale Reserve" by President Woodrow Wilson. Back then, as navies switched from coal to oil, the federal government reserved certain public lands for future fuel supplies for the U.S. Navy -- the most notorious being the scandal-ridden Teapot Dome Reserve north of Casper, Wyo.

At that time, and even today, there was no economical way to extract petroleum from oil shale. No battleships were ever powered by oil shale, so control of the land passed from the Navy to the U.S. Department of Energy to the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Lots of people -- including local ranchers and hunters worried about the mule deer population -- oppose drilling on the Roan Plateau. They worked through the system to protest, writing letters, speaking out at public meetings and lobbying their elected officials.

They did nothing violent or destructive. But the press release denounced them as "economic terror groups -- eco-terrorists" who had "launched an attack against the U.S. Naval Oil Shale Reserve," thereby "weakening American security, right when we are in the middle of a war."

Greg Schnacke, president of Americans for American Energy, explained that "America can better support our troops if our economy is strong. And producing more American energy here at home -- instead of buying foreign energy -- makes us stronger. But these eco-terrorists and their supporters in Congress want to hamstring America's ability to harvest American energy. ..."

Thus does a peaceful, legal effort to protect public lands become an act of terrorism.

The energy lobby isn't the only one to play the name-calling card, however.

A couple of months ago, an immense (5.25 pounds, 12 by 14 inches) book landed on my desk. Thrillcraft: The Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation is a lushly illustrated anthology of passionate attacks on motorized recreation: motorcycles, ATVs, ORVs, snowmobiles, jet skis, dune buggies and swamp buggies, to name the most prominent offenders.

As someone who tries to tread quietly and lightly, I certainly sympathize with the authors. But are motorheads really practicing "eco-terrorism"?

In the book's foreword, Douglas Thompson, president of the Foundation for Deep Ecology, says so. Thrillcraft was designed "to document the pervasive destruction of America's public lands by a home-grown crop of eco-terrorists, people who wantonly disfigure landscapes in the pursuit of thoughtless, gas-guzzling 'fun.' "

Motorized recreationists are outdoors having fun. They might be boorish, loud and destructive. But does that make them terrorists?

Granted, there are some who knock down signs and tear out gates. I saw their handiwork a few months ago at one of my favorite hiking areas near town. Some four-wheelers had contrived a detour around the big rocks that the BLM had installed to block a deeply rutted, washed-out path up a gulch. Those drivers were certainly vandals and lawbreakers. I would call them "jerks," as well as various unprintable epithets. But I wouldn't call them terrorists.

What, after all, is terrorism?

My American Heritage Dictionary says it's "the systematic use of terror (defined nearby as intense, overpowering fear), violence, and intimidation to achieve an end."

Perhaps more pertinently, the U.S. State Department calls it "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." In our land-management disputes, there certainly have been acts of terrorism, such as the pipe bombs aimed at U.S. Forest Service personnel in 1995 in Nevada, or the 1998 arson that damaged or destroyed seven buildings at the Vail ski resort in Colorado.

But citizens who go to public hearings or offer their opinions on motorized recreation, oil and gas drilling or a host of other public-lands issues are hardly committing acts of terrorism. These citizens may be our opponents. They may be stupid or naive or misguided. But let's quit calling them "terrorists."

If you don't agree, then you must be a terrorist, or at least a pinko comsymp.

Ed Quillen lives in Salida, Colo., where he publishes Colorado Central Magazine and is a regular op-ed columnist for the Denver Post.