…in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? This century-old philosophical thought experiment is often conducted to explore the connection between our realities and observations. However, If a Tree Falls, the newly Academy Award nominated documentary, contends, the answer to this question is: “No, which is why the aggravated beavers and radical environmentalists need to burn down buildings.”
If a Tree Falls gives an inside look at the members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a radical pro-environment organization that has taken credit for “two dozen major acts of eco-terrorism,” specifically arson, throughout the country in the late 90’s and early aughts. Centering on Daniel McGowan, who was, self-admittedly, “involved in two separate arsons,” this documentary examines the deviation from environmentalist to radical sect and the events that led to “millions of dollars of property damage.”
To its credit, this documentary doesn’t absolve McGowan of his crimes, and he doesn’t deny them either. Rather, he might be the purest form of activist: one that stands with conviction but admits wrongdoing. In a way, he faces his shame as often he can, never wanting to forget what he did, and this makes him a sympathetic character. He seems resolved to serve eight years in prison.
His primary complaint is that he will forever be labeled a “terrorist,” a prescription that shades visas, passports, airline tickets, and future employment. Perhaps any future jobs would be impacted by his role as “lookout” in the Supreme Lumber fire, or an active “bomber” in the Jefferson Poplar arson, but his characterization as “terrorist” seems more akin to a play on an all-encompassing buzzword that conjures images of suicide bombers, dead bodies tossed about, and commercial airliners crashing into skyscrapers.
There, this documentary veers away from taking sides and pointing fingers and aims more at the semantics of phrases like “eco-terrorists.” In other words, should terrorism refer solely to environmentalists who destroy property, or could it also be comprised of tankers that spill millions of gallons in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic. Could the moniker also be applied to lumber companies that strip Oregonian mountains bare and leave them looking like freshly skinned carcasses?
There’s a fine line limned between the two, but the ultimate determinant seems to be commerce. Environmentalists, on a comparative scale, contribute little to a rotating economy. Therefore, the companies’ actions skirt any connection with “terrorism” because they simultaneously maintain employment rates and circulate money in the local economy.
Given our current national unemployment rate, this is difficult to admonish, but the question as to whether or not radical activism is the only way to create change remains.
This documentary is well-timed and will evoke more than a few references to Occupy Wall Street. While the targets are capitalist America, the agendas are a bit different. Regardless, the moments most similar are those that involve attacks on non-violent protestors. According to If a Tree Falls, the inception of the ELF stems from the frustration felt by civil protestors who were pepper-sprayed and tear gassed for merely assembling in protest, acts that are eerily reminiscent to those sprayed on the campus of UC Davis and throughout the rest of the country for refusing to leave “occupied” areas.
Again questioning the true definition of terrorism, which in this case is the “instilling of fear with a subject,” this documentary juxtaposes pain-inflicting actions of authority figures (National Guard, SWAT, Policemen) against the actions of those in the ELF (arson, destruction of property). When these images are scene side by side, it’s difficult to discern which aggressor is more hostile. While the ELF admits to committing crimes, their plots, by design, were enacted when people were scarce: no one was hurt during the fires and most all of them took place well beyond hours of operation. This certainly doesn’t justify their actions and erase their illegality, but it does make one pause and wonder whether or not the sledgehammering sound of a business collapsing, in the long run, doesn’t have more of an impact than a passive protestor left to rinse pepper spray from their body.
In the end, it seems that the addition of “terrorism” to crime is really a form of revisionist history, or, at least, a method in securing the future. Take for example the Boston Tea Party, an act of protest and destruction of property that is widely, and rightly, taught in schools (and alluded to in the film). The Tea Party was an destructive act against an unjust monopoly, and became a key moment in the growth of our own American Revolution. Was this not a method through with we “instilled fear” in the colonizers? Would this not be considered “terrorism” today if the context were different, and instead of “tea,” we refused to pay federal taxes because of the way they are mismanaged and utilized without our consent? Granted, throwing tons of paper W-2’s in the ocean would make little difference – and in fact might make us eco-terrorists — but what if we stormed the various IRS establishments, removed their computers and began disposing of them? In today’s parlance, this might very well be “terrorism,” if not a form of “treason.”
If nothing else, If a Tree Falls revisits Lacan’s notion that the “world of words is the world of things” and looks at how words construct what we deem good and bad. If you’re with us, you’re an ally; if you’re against us, you’re a terrorist.