Wednesday, December 08, 2004

So someone burns down a controversial new housing development in Maryland, and the national news plays up the possibility that it was eco-terrorism. I have two quick thoughts about this.

First of all, while torching an environmentally-destructive housing development is clearly very bad behavior and something to be condemned, I'm not sure I think it really qualifies as terrorism. "Terrorism", to me, implies a desire to do more than just damage the object of your attack. The idea is to cause fear and influence behavior and policy more broadly. Assuming the motive for the arson was environmental, the point of burning down the development might just have been to prevent people from moving in. I think I'd call it "eco-sabotage," rather than "eco-terrorism." The word "terrorism" ought to be reserved for behavior meant to terrorize, rather than used as a catch-all for "politically-motivated crime."

Second of all, I'm confused about why the national media has been so quick to assume the arsonists were motivated by environmental concerns. It's true that environmentalists objected to the development; it's also true that most of the people who had bought houses there were black, and that most of the residents of the surrounding area are white. The Washington Post has been less willing to suggest a motive, raising the possibility that it was the work of the Earth Liberation Front or some such group, but also reporting that the homeowners suspect the crime was racially motivated. When the story was reported on NPR this morning, though, that possibility didn't even come up.

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