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There's No Hysteria Over Ecoterrorism

Writing about recent action taken by the Department of Homeland Security against ecoterrorism, David Roberts says:

The point is that the DHS is complicit in a decidedly political attempt to smear and generate hysteria about domestic opponents, on ideological, not security, grounds.

I don't think his interpretation is quite right. But let me begin by stating where we agree: DHS's anti-ecoterrorism efforts are far out of proportion to the danger it poses, particularly when compared to the agency's lackluster campaigns against right-wing and Islamist terrorism. And the net being cast is far too broad -- e.g. considering distributing animal rights pamphlets to be suspicious activity. Much of DHS's ecoterrorism campaign cannot be justified on the utilitarian grounds of protecting the security of the homeland.

However, I think "generating hysteria" is the wrong frame through which to criticize what DHS is doing. Certainly it's an appealing frame. The current administration's efforts to stoke fears over Islamist terrorism have made that frame very salient. And it's a powerful one, invoking a powerful cultural aversion to self-serving alarmism. So it would be nice if critics of the ecoterrorism strategy could hitch a ride on it.

However, I don't think ecoterrorism fits the hysteria frame. As I wrote before, DHS -- for all its wrongheaded policies in this area (which I underplayed in my previous post) -- is not pursuing the strategy that would be expected if it was trying to whip up hysteria over ecoterrorism. We've heard barely a peep about it in the media. Top administration officials are not speaking out about it. Warning levels are not being raised with great fanfare.

As a proponent of a strongly cultural interpretation of politics it goes against my inclinations to say it, but I think ecoterrorism is a case of the government pursuing a rational strategy rather than engaging in symbolic expressive action. It's a rational strategy that begins with a flawed premise -- that environmentalism (whether terroristic or mainstream) is a threat to capitalism. And it's a rational strategy aimed at an improper goal -- padding the egos and pocketbooks of business. But given those assumptions, DHS has developed a policy aimed more at stopping environmental action (terroristic or not) than at generating and exploiting fears of environmentalism.

Insofar as there's any hysteria-generation going on, it's a very targeted hysteria. It's a subtle attempt to exaggerate the threat to the business community, in order that they will then feel like DHS is doing something useful for them. It is not -- as Roberts implies -- an attempt to make the nation as a whole fear imminent ELF attacks.


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