Arson About Face

by | Mar 25, 2009

At Climate Resistance, we are quite often to be found making connections between environmentalism and the War on Terror. So we were a little surprised to find an environmentalist (and it’s probably fairly safe to assume that an environment correspondent at the Guardian is an environmentalist) apparently doing the same today.

The line that Suzanne Goldenberg draws between the respective wars on terror and CO2 is, however, rather different from our own. The story’s headline gives it away:

Serving 22 years: the environmentalist who fell victim to US anti-terror laws

In fact, it gave away so much that the paper replaced the headline in the online edition with:

Activist or terrorist? Mild-mannered eco-militant serving 22 years for arson

The Guardian’s moral compass points only to melting ice caps. The title may have changed, but it is still clear that they can’t tell the difference between an ‘activist or terrorist’, or seem to think that being an ‘activist’ qualifies an arsonist for special treatment.

The explosive fire Mason and Ambrose set at Michigan State University on 31 December 1999 caused nearly $1m (£680,000) of damage to buildings and equipment, but no death or injuries. The target was the office of the director of a genetically modified crop research programme into moth-resistant food crops for Africa, funded by the US Agency for International Development and the biotechnology company Monsanto.

Marie Mason is clearly an activist, and probably a terrorist. The Guardian doesn’t seem to think that one can be both. It is is as though sympathy for the ends, if not the means, is enough to transform violence into mere protest.

The story hinges on the claim that the sentence is too stiff:

However, Mason’s lawyer, John Minock, who filed an appeal against the sentence last week, argues that 22 years is excessively harsh. Mason got a much longer sentence than several militants recently convicted of setting fire to logging camps and vehicles in Oregon and Washington states – including Stanislas Meyerhoff who received 13 years for setting 11 fires and causing $30m in damage.

And that the reason it is too stiff is that ‘the courts have used domestic terrorism laws to stiffen the punishment for politically inspired violence’.

Mason is a prime example. “We are definitely seeing more severe sentences post-9/11, no doubt about it,” said Heidi Boghosian, the director of the National Lawyers Guild. “We have seen a trend of using the terrorist label and federalising a lot of criminal activities that would have gotten a far less stringent sentence before.”

Lauren Regan, an Oregon lawyer who defends environmental militants, calls it the “green scare”.

We find it hard to find sympathy for Mason, however. And her complaints that her sentence is harsh need to be seen in the context, not of sentences passed on other ‘activists’, or ‘terrorists’, but to other people convicted of arson.

It was only last Thursday that the Guardian was reporting on a Californian jury’s recommendation of the death penalty for a man who started a series of wildfires that resulted in the deaths of five firefighters:

Of course, Mason didn’t cause any deaths, but that is owed to luck, not design. She may claim that she didn’t intend to hurt anybody, but the arsonist loses the right to make that claim when they strike their matches against the matchbox. Mason complains that the harsh sentence is owed to the fact that ‘the government is trying to send a message’. But isn’t that what she was trying to do when she was, harshly, trying to assert her message by burning stuff to the ground, and risking lives? Harsh messages are answered with harsh messages.

If this were any other violent criminal, Goldenburg would not have a story. It is because Goldenburg and her employers are sympathetic to the aims that these perpetrators of this mundane act of destruction claimed to have in mind. But what did they really have in mind?

No sooner was Mason’s partner, Ambrose, caught, than he confessed, and allowed the authorities to pursue her. Some kind of solidarity. Contrast that with perpetrators of political violence, or even just political prisoners elsewhere in the world. That such a lack of honour exists between these arsonists surely indicates the hollowness of their cause. Ambrose acts in his self interest, to reduce his sentence, and Mason appeals that the sentence was too harsh. Clearly, neither of them really have the courage of their convictions that political prisoners in the past have possessed. They don’t bravely face their sentences. They apologise, and ask to be treated nicely.

Such a lack of conviction surely emphasises the nihilism of deep ecologists. Behind bars, such nihilism loses all its potency. Apart from those hurt by their actions, few on the outside will remember them. There are no movements on the outside, waiting for their return, to rejoin the struggle for liberation. Mason and her ilk have not campaigned for liberation. The conflagrations they caused were nothing more than the selfish acts of people lost in the world, who have comprehensively failed to touch other people with their message, and to establish a movement. This is the philosophy that the Guardian believes muddies the distinction between an ‘activist’ and a ‘terrorist’.

Perhaps Mason is neither an activist or a terrorist. She is like any other sad criminal, whose confusion about the world is expressed as a desire to destroy it. Like Raymond Lee Oyler, her acts are hard to explain. It is bizarre then, that the Guardian thinks that it’s the harsh sentence that needs explaining.

To those in Mason’s home city of Detroit who know her, her elevation to the ranks of America’s most dangerous criminals came as a shock. A fixture in activist circles, she was bright and charming, but unfocused – a woman who had an advanced degree in chemistry but lived near the poverty line.

The Guardian’s reporting on this issue is, as ever, informed not by an understanding of why it is wrong to set fire to things to get your message heard, nor by coherent ideas about jurisprudence… It’s not ‘fair’, because Mason was ‘nice’. It is informed by the same nihilistic and disorientated philosophy that afflicts Ambrose and Mason.

We have argued previously that environmentalism is an ideology. Indeed it is, in the sense that it wants to reorganise the world around its principles, by force and coercion if necessary. But those principles are confused and arbitrary because at its heart, there exists a void.

CR commenter Robert Wood commented on our recent post about James Hansen’s understanding of ‘democracy’ that Hansen ‘thinks he is one of Plato’s philosopher kings’. But the strangest thing about Hansen’s rise is that he has been crowned by nihilists. The argument for the philosopher king is being made by ignorant philistines. It is their own empty outlook they are evincing, not their commitment to a particular philosophy, or even the supremacy of the philosophical method. They want to be told what to do, how the world should be organised, and what ‘science’ says is right. This is because they cannot work it out for themselves. Environmentalism, whether it is setting fire to laboratories (so much for science then) or campaigning for laws to restrict human freedom, is a desperate search for meaning, in the same way that setting fire to things is a desperate attempt to assert control over a confusing world.

So environmentalism, in both its extreme expression of igniting fires, and it’s more mundane expression of elevating climate scientists to moral and political heroes and saviours, and its downright banal defence of criminal insanity in the press, shares just one thing: nothing.


  1. Ayrdale

    Very true, very nicely put.
    I have posted on green nihilism in the past, and have shamelessly lifted a block quote from you today.
    Thanks again.

  2. Stefan

    The extreme environmentalists don’t understand what happens when law and order breaks down.

    Try going to a place in the world where law and order is corrupt or non-existent, and see how long they survive, let alone whether anybody cares about the “environment”.

    People who want to challenge society to move forward, FIRST NEED TO JOIN SOCIETY. That means abide by society’s standards, like you know, not going round setting fire to stuff just because you don’t like it.

    If you are truly fighting for a right cause, and you resort to violence, you’ve basically decided to turn it into a war, and yes indeedy society will brand you a terrorist, because that is what you are, and you’ll just have to fight that war and suffer the consequences. But take note ecoterrorists, nobody supports you!

  3. Editors

    Stefan – ‘People who want to challenge society to move forward, FIRST NEED TO JOIN SOCIETY’

    We think it might be truer to say that they need to at first be part of a society, or rather, form some kind of association.

    For instance, there have been resistance movements, or movements for change that have not been part of society as such, which we wouldn’t want to say were illegitimate by virtue of their being outside of society and violent.

    The fact seems to be however, as you rightly point out, these (but maybe not all) violent acts are the expression of NOT being part of society, or in fact, failing to be part of it.

    If Mason and her partner were part of some violently oppressed group struggling to assert themselves politically, it would be easier to sympathise.

    But it’s not even the case that Greens in the US are un or under represented. On the contrary.

    The comparison we are fond of making is between the angry greens, and the serfs in revolutionary France, demanding ‘less cake’, and for ‘more aristocrats’. It’s a non-movement for unliberation, inequality, and unfraternity.

  4. Robert Wood

    I cannot be as sanguine about this as the editors are. I must admit I don’t fully understand your point about nihilism.

    I see these arsonists as being a fore-taste. These are young people who have filled their life with meaning by adopting an overiding raison d’etre: the environment. 100 years ago, it was “the working class”; 50 years ago, “the oppressed”. Their “cause” provides the uber-morality, allowing them to commit the most inhumane of atrocities in it’s name. They do it as it provides meaning, in a world where the natural meaning of life does not exist, due to the wealth of the society they live in. They do not have the adventure of killing for food. They are shock troops for an elder such as Stalin, Lenin or, perhaps, Al Gore, to exploit for their own egos.

  5. Editors


    Could you expand a little on what it is you think today’s arsonists have in common with the young people (Mason is in her 40s) who espoused working class politics, fought oppression, and went on to ‘commit atrocities’?

    Are you alluding to specific cases?

  6. Mark Weston

    Surely this Guardian story says nothing unique about environmentalists. It’s a common syndrome of any Cause – be it Irish liberation, the anti-abortion movement or the miners’ strike – that fellow supporters will argue that the intent behind the activist/terrorist/criminal’s actions mitigate the seriousness of the crime. This conversation has happened many times before.

    And on the face it the mitigation argument is a valid one. After all, the criminal justice system is based on judgements about intent just as much as objective measurements of harm. And I’m pretty sure that most of us would find an intent-free justice system to be, well, pretty unjust. But of course if you oppose the Cause then you’ll find the arguments for mitigation distasteful.

    The trouble is that unless you take a position that rejects political violence in all circumstances – and that’s a position with ethical difficulties of its own – then it’s impossible for you to maintain a logically consistent argument. What you’re left with is the statement that action x was unjustified because actor X was “wrong”, but action y was justified because actor Y was “right”. Unless you have a set of universally accepted moral absolutes to appeal to, the only people who are going to agree with you are the ones who already do!

    As I said, these arguments about the acceptable limits of political action have been repeated many times in many contexts. So it’s mistaken to hold up that Guardian piece as evidence of the unique nihilism of the environmental ideology.

    And personally I do feel that 22 years for (non-lethal) arson is pretty damn harsh whatever the motivations of the arsonist.

  7. Editors


    We tried to make a distinction between previous acts of political violence and Mason’s, for the reasons you outline.

    We think environmentalism is distinct in character from other movements in history. That is to say that what environmentalists ‘share’ is not, for instance, a belief in self-determination, of independence from illegitimate authority, or of any kind of progress, but the disorientation experienced by the criminally insane.

    This is highlighted by the fact that, although such activists believe themselves to be part of an unheard, dispossessed minority, their creed is shared by people in positions of much influence, and is increasingly the organising principle of much local, national, and supra-national government.

    Also, where previous forms of political violence have had a constituency of sorts, environmentalism has almost none. That’s not to legitimise political violence, of course.

    Does Mason’s vandalism deserve any more sympathy than any other selfish act of ‘political’ violence? The failed shoe-bomber, perhaps?

    If someone with an advanced degree in chemistry isn’t aware of what her 13 counts of arson are capable of producing, even if that’s not what she intended, then who would? That fires spread uncontrollably is the basis for arson being an offence carrying such a stiff penalty.

    Perhaps it is a harsh sentence. But our argument does not suffer if it is. The post is about why the Guardian presents Mason as somehow deserving of leniency for being on the right side.

  8. Mark Weston

    Hmm, well, let me try again from a different direction.

    Your post (and your reply to my comment) is a restatement of one of the central theses of this blog, exhibiting that Guardian article as further evidence. I’m not really arguing with the thesis. I’m just suggesting that in this case you’re over-reaching a bit.

    All we have here is a member of Ideology X deciding that the ends justify the means, and her fellow ideologues defending that decision. It’s a behaviour we can (unfortunately) see daily in all areas of political dispute. I just don’t see anything in it that speaks specifically or uniquely about environmentalism.

    And by the way, this;

    “the disorientation experienced by the criminally insane.”

    is a bit OTT don’t you think? Also heading quite close to the kind of language and style of argument that you’ve heavily criticised others for.

  9. Robert Wood

    I was thinking of Austro-Hungarian assassins, Chinese Red Guards, the middle-class and spoilt “Marxist-Leninists” of my youth; the students who ransacked a university computer room in Montreal; the students of Paris in 1968.

    I was thinking of the idealism of youth subsumed into a “greater cause” that can so easily justify violence. The fact that this woman was over 40 just demonstrates her inmaturity.

  10. Editors


    “… a “greater cause” that can so easily justify violence…”

    Is it always wrong? How does one determine why, and what is a legitimate use of violence for a greater cause, and what is not?

    The campaigning for the ‘working class’, 100 years ago, that you mentioned (presumably you’re not old enough to have experienced their protests) would likely have been the working class itself, rather than over-indulged students, and were on the receiving end of violence, and conditions that would, rightly, be considered unacceptable today.

    Ditto, people campaigning 50 years ago, against ‘oppression’. Which oppression? The treatment of black people in South Africa and Southern USA, perhaps? Seems to us like a legitimate thing to be both angry and protest about. Those protests were often met with state aggression.

    It’s not as if the French police, for instance, were ever known for their reluctance to use violence. State’s aggression against strikers certainly helped to escalate the 1968 conflict, presumably with the same ‘greater good’ rationale.

    The difference between Mason, and the spectrum of unrest in 1968, is that in Paris, hundreds of thousands of people were involved. Whether or not you agree with any of the actions or arguments made by strikers or students, it was a substantial expression of genuine grievance and solidarity.

    Mason wasn’t part of any such movement. Environmentalism hasn’t been able to create that kind of movement. It’s not a expression of grievance. Instead of campaigning for particular political ideals, for rights, and for recognition, environmental protests are more generally an unfocussed grumble about modern life.

  11. geoff chambers

    You said at #7 “what environmentalists ‘share’ is … the disorientation experienced by the criminally insane”. Wow.
    Its not that I disagree, but I seem to remember getting rapped on the knuckles for suggesting that certain much milder psychological terms, such as displacement activity or obsessional neurosis, might be in order for analysing the environmentalist phenomenon. I was also surprised when you expressed approval of the term “eco-fascist” which I regretted having used.
    I would never use such language in a “public” blog like CommentisFree because its self-defeating, but I do think it would be interesting to have a serious discussion on the roots and nature of the environmentalist movement where Godwin’s Law and other rules of polite society didn’t apply.

  12. geoff chambers

    While there may be extreme cases where violence may be justified in furtherance of a political cause, it’s worth pointing out that it hardly ever works. Nelson Mandela is possibly the most widely admired modern politician to have espoused political violence, but it was his courage in prison, not the futile bombing campaigns by the ANC, which won admiration. And it was the black caucus in the Democrat Party (plus the Cuban Airforce) which defeated apartheid.
    As an example of the evil effect of “good” terrorism: France’s most popular environmentalist, José Bové, rose to fame when he dismantled a McDonald’s which was under construction in a protest against OM crops. Everyone thought it a super wheeze, including one young activist who planted a home-made bomb in the entrance to a McDonalds, killing a cleaning lady. The French media made little of the story and, to my knowledge, José Bové was never challenged on his indirect responsibility. Bové is regularly cited in opinion polls as one of France’s most popular political figures, yet in the presidential election he got just 1%. People seem to like Greens, they just don’t want to vote for them.

  13. Editors


    Our comment wasn’t intended to say that environmentalists are criminally insane. The point was that what they share is misanthropic and nihilistic. So what brings Goldenburg to sympathise with Mason has no substance.

    On the topic of violence ultimately being legitimised, we tried to avoid saying it was always right, or always wrong. Conflicts rarely arise out of just one party’s actions. We think Robert was wrong, for instance to compare historical movements with Mason’s actions, because the conflicts that they were involved in were truly historic, not merely the whining of bored students. Deep differences in society existed at those times.

    We don’t know much about José Bové, thanks for pointing him out to us. But couldn’t his apparent popularity be explained as the result of the media’s desire for sensational copy? Caroline Lucas here in the UK is a similar figure, who polls badly, but gets a seat in the Euro parliament by coming top of the bottom. She is wheeled out by the TV and Radio because she’s the closest thing we have to a radical politician, and so the only way the producer of a panel debate can guarantee a noisy programme.

  14. geoff chambers

    The head of the German and Euro parliament Greens is ex Paris 68 student leader Danny Cohn Bendit, a true recycled Red. The French figurehead, José Bové, is a whiskery pipe-smoking shepherd who defends the French culinary tradition from nasty multinationals. (his parents were both biology professors at the University of California, but let’s not get psychoanalytical about it). Your own homegrown Greens you know. The fact that they’re such a disparate bunch of lovable eccentrics tends to prove your point that environmentalism is more like a collection of people stuck in a lift together than a true mass movement.


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