It's 3.16 in the morning. Sirens blare as fire-fighters in Seattle are called to a blazing inferno at the University of Washington. Years of work, by 50 scientists, are quickly reduced to ashes in damage totalling $2.5 million. The fire was deliberately lit by activist group ELF, in an attack on one scientist, geneticist Toby Bradshaw, who had been trying to engineer quick growing trees for the paper industry.
Such extreme forms of protest are on the increase in the US, despite the best efforts of the FBI and Government. 'It's going to generate a large amount of publicity, it's definitely an intelligent tactic to use,' asserts ELF spokesman Craig Rosebraugh. But the Government would disagree. Jeff Luers was recently sentenced to 22 and a half years in jail for starting a fire in a car yard, in protest against the high level of pollution caused by off road vehicles. Three 4x4s were destroyed. 'We are the number one polluter in the world. The majority of the pollution comes from vehicles. [4x4s] are the number one polluter in that class,' he states.
Many consider his punishment a little extreme. 'Quite frankly, we think that the majority of Jeff's punishment is being heaped upon him not for his crime, but for his ideology,' his parents lament. The ELF claim that they never put any human at risk, and to date no-one has been hurt.
But the majority of US citizens think Luers' punishment only too fitting, if not generous. 'Everybody's going, "Oh, my God, he got 22 years." This man was looking at about 45 years if the judge wanted to stack everything consecutively out,' comments the investigator who looked into his case.
The FBI and high-ranking politicians would seem to agree. 'They would call it a success. I would call it domestic terrorism... If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it's probably a duck,' asserts FBI Domestic Terror chief James F Jarboe. 'They believe they can just raise their hand and go "we didn't want to hurt anyone" and it's alright.' Until September 11th, the ELF was considered by the FBI to be the most dangerous group in America - a feeling shared by many: 'The ELF is absolutely an environmental fundamentalist group. They are just as fundamentalist and intolerant as a group like the Taliban'.
And Congressman George Nethercutt has been calling for yet harsher sentences for perpetrators of such crimes. As well as proposing 20 years in jail for attacks on plant or animal facilities, he takes the view that 'if you kill somebody, and you conduct agro or eco-terrorism, then you are facing the death penalty.'
The environmental stance of the USA has often been called into question, and the ELF does command a support base among disillusioned environmental campaigners. But in a country under threat from terrorist organisations around the world, arson and sabotage are unlikely to win succour with many. 'This isn't passive resistance. This isn't protest. This isn't Gandhi. It isn't Martin Luther King. It's very violent action that shows very little regard for human beings.
Produced by SBS Australia