It is indeed a slippery slope when some on the right say that vandalism carried out by destructive environmental activists be defined as acts of terrorism.
Congress hastily passed the anti-terrorist Patriot Act in October 2001 during a time when it was under siege by a real bio-terror anthrax attack. Many members of Congress, on both the left and right, now regret not examining closely the long-term effect of the Patriot Act on the constitutional rights of Americans.
Following an arson attack against a condominium under construction in San Diego, the vandalism of sport utility vehicles at four Los Angeles area auto dealerships and the freeing of 10,000 minks from a farm near Seattle, the Justice Department is labeling such attacks ``eco terrorism.''
There are calls by some in Congress, particularly Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., that ''eco-terrorists'' be treated in the same manner as members of al Qaeda. To expand the Draconian Patriot Act and the proposed future ''Patriot II'' and ''Victory'' acts to cover arson, vandalism, destruction of private property and trespassing would propel the United States dangerously closer to the type of society envisaged by George Orwell in 1984.
It is a hallmark of totalitarian regimes around the world to elevate simple crimes to ''crimes against the state.'' In many lands, those who merely practice their religion or join a labor union are labeled national security threats by the authorities and are tossed into jail. It is clear that Attorney General John Ashcroft and his zealous allies in Congress have environmental activist groups such as the Earth Liberation Front, Earth First and the Animal Liberation Front in their gun sights.
But to argue that these groups pose the same level of threat as al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya is ludicrous. The environmental vandals are not in the category of worldwide networks that aim to kill thousands by setting off bombs and releasing dangerous toxins.
If Ashcroft and his friends get their way and pass new anti-terrorist legislation, American citizens who support environmental causes could find themselves detained as ''enemy combatants,'' thrown into the brig without having the right to see a lawyer and, according to one provision in a version of the proposed Patriot II, could have their U.S. citizenship taken away, even if they are native born.
The word ''terrorism'' is now being used as cavalierly to describe opponents of the current administration as much as ''communist'' was used to describe liberals and the left in the 1950s and '60s.
Congress must be on guard against attempts by Ashcroft and his colleagues to tip the scales of justice to enable the government to brand as ''terrorists'' those who commit lesser crimes or who commit no crimes at all but are merely exercising First Amendment rights.
Ashcroft has already used anti-terror powers to bust a prostitution ring in Louisiana and a cigarette smuggling operation in North Carolina. Those who spray-paint cars are not terrorists. There are state and local laws on the books to deal with vandalism.
Setting buildings on fire is arson, and we have plenty of laws to deal with arsonists. Freeing minks that then go about eating pet parakeets and chickens, although abhorrent, does not constitute terrorism.
The United States is a nation of laws, not a land of dictates, decrees and fiats.
Wayne Madsen is a senior fellow of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Copyright 2003 Miami Herald