If a Tree Falls is documentary about the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a radical environmental group that used arson in the 1990’s after less destructive tactics failed to change public opinion or the opinions of those involved with destroying natural resources for material gain. This group is somewhat different from other radical groups in that it is a global organization without a leader such that each country cell may operate differently. In this country, the FBI called the ELF “America’s number one domestic terrorism threat.” The documentary follows the story of an individual member, Daniel McGowan, who was arrested in 2005 in a nationwide FBI action despite McGowen not having been a member of the group for several years before his arrest. This action followed several years of ELF instigating numerous large scale arson attacks against several dozen businesses the group believed to be destroying the environment. These businesses included lumbar corporations, SUV companies, and wild horse slaughterhouses. The cell McGowen was involved in was the one that caused the first arson attacks in this country.
The story details how McGowen became involved with the ELF, when, following college while working at a public relations corporation he learned about the rampant destruction of the environment that was then occurring. He rapidly became involved in letter campaigns, petitions and eventually civil disobediences. When all that failed and peaceful protests resulted in police actions he became willing to engage in what were at first small time property destruction then taking part in two multimillion dollar arsons with the ELF. The first involved a lumber firm which logged old-growth trees, while the other set fire to a tree farm he was told involved genetic engineering. But after that second fire, McGowan began to have doubts about using arson as a means to promote change.
The movie includes remarkable archival material and personal interviews with real ELF members along with the investigator who was responsible for their arrest and the prosecutor that made the case against them. This dramatic recreation of events is at once thrilling and curious as it raises a number of difficult question about environmental protection groups, activism in general and how we determine what constitutes terrorist attacks. It covers the years from 1995 until 2001 when many environmental groups besides ELF were conflicting with lumbar companies over their destruction of old forests that had taken, in some cases, over a century to grow.
I found this movie fascinating but it brought a big dilemma for me. That would be trying to determine how to define terrorism. I couldn’t imagine how an environmental group, even a radical one could ever be considered the most dangerous terrorist group in America. They made a point of ensuring that no one was hurt in the arsons and while setting property on fire is a crime I’m not sure it should be considered along the same lines as 9/11. The prosecutor said that you don’t have to be Bonny and Clyde to be a bank robber and you don’t have to be a member of Al Qaida to be a terrorist. I think that is a good analogy but not in the way the prosecutor meant it. There is a difference between for example, sneaking a twentiy out of the cash drawer in the bank, still technically robbery and murdering more than a dozen people, wounding numerous others, holding banks up at gunpoint, grand theft auto, kidnapping and the host of other crimes committed by Bonny and Clyde. Similarly, there is a difference between setting fires and destroying property while making sure no one is hurt and flying planes into structures that result in the deaths of almost 3000 people and hurting over 6000 others. I still don’t have a clear answer to the question of defining terrorism since the acts allegedly resulted in real terror for the victims but the actions depicted in the film which were done to make sure natural resources and environmental beauty would still be available for future generations feel different to me that purposely trying to kill as many Americans as possible through actions which will knowingly kill all those involved as well.