Directed by: Marshall Curry.
ter·ror·ism - noun1. the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.
2. the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
3. a terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.
The Earth Liberation Front had its heyday in the early 2000, when a group of environmental activists got tired of doing things within the system – like peaceful protests and petitions – and decided to take things to the next level – by burning down buildings housing companies that they didn’t like – logging companies were a particular favorite target. Daniel McGowan was one of members of the ELF that participated in the arsons. The FBI did not give up on the investigations, and a couple of years after the fires stopped – because of a splintering within ELF – he and 13 others were arrested.
The question that seems to be at the front of If a Tree Falls, a documentary that follows McGowan as he is under house arrest in New York awaiting his trial, is whether or not what the ELF did constitutes terrorism or not. No one was ever physically hurt in any of the ELF attacks, but millions of dollars in damages were done. Timber companies, SUV dealerships, tree farms, a University office where apparent genetic engineering of trees was taking place (it was later learned it wasn’t), food companies, etc were all targeted. Owners and employees of the company talk about how scared they were going to back to work. Some places never reopened at all, meaning employees lost their livelihoods because of the ELF. I included the dictionary definition of terrorism at the top of this review, because strangely, director Marshall Curry does not. And I’m sorry, but while I will full heartedly admit that the ELF was not a terrorist organization on the level of Al Qaeda, it certainly seems to me that they qualify under the first definition.
But it that question that makes If a Tree Falls a fascinating documentary. You may well come up with a different opinion than mine watching the movie, but I do feel the movie plays fair – it interviews not only members of the ELF, and some of their less radical supporters, but also the victims of the crimes (and as one police officer points out, he doesn’t know if it was terrorism or not, but arson is definitely a crime), and investigators who eventually cracked the case.
McGowan himself is an interesting guy – he’s hardly what you picture when you think of an extremist. He seems calm and relaxed, and he certainly admits that mistakes were made. And it is worth noting that the reason the chapter of the ELF he was involved in fell apart is because of a disagreement as to whether or not to target individuals and not just property – with McGowan firmly against the targeting of people. I even feel kind of sorry for the guy, who was eventually sentenced to 7 years in jail (he’s still serving time as far as I know). But, McGowan really has no one but himself to blame. No, I don’t agree with many of the same things that inflamed the ELF so much, and no, I don’t think the police in Oregon handled the peaceful protests in a responsible way – pepper spraying people at random, and using way too much force than was necessary, were two things that inflamed the ELF even more. But when you take the law into your own hands, and starting committing crimes, you’re really no better than those you are protesting against – you may in fact be worse.