Longform

Burn, Baby, Burn

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But while some civic-minded citizens struggled through traditional routes for constructive change last year, a few members of the Radical Left fought sprawl on their own terms. An organization called the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) claimed responsibility for anti-sprawl arsons in Indiana, Colorado and New York. Each target was an unfinished luxury home or homes encroaching on an environmentally sensitive area. The ELF said the Niwot, Colorado, fire in November was set specifically to protest voter rejection of an anti-sprawl amendment that developers spent $6 million to defeat. At the Long Island site, accompanying graffiti expressed sentiments such as "Burn the Rich," "Stop Urban Sprawl" and . . . "If You Build It We Will Burn It."

About that last message: Its similarity to the first message left by the Phoenix arsonist may be coincidental, or ELF members may have picked up the phrase from news reports. The ELF has denied responsibility for the Phoenix attacks, and ELF spokesman Craig Rosebraugh says he just learned of the Phoenix arsonist a few weeks ago.

His claim of ignorance is unfortunately plausible.

Until the Long Island firebombing propelled the ELF to page one of the New York Times last week, the national media were uninterested in the arsonist, perhaps because Phoenix media have covered the arsonist as a one-sided crime story. We've heard opinions from the fire department, police, city council members, frightened homeowners and luxury home contractors, all essentially saying: "Arson is bad, mm-kay?"

Terrorism experts say shrugging off the arguments of those who feel disenfranchised, rather than providing a forum for discussion, only serves to inflame a movement's radical fringe. And the reality is that many in the Valley are, quietly and sometimes guiltily, rooting for the arsonist because of the presumed ideology of his cause. Not everyone can muster sympathy for wealthy people seeking to build half-million-dollar houses on the Preserve -- their plans spoiled by a radical risking life in prison presumably to protect open space for the rest of us.

"I don't necessarily condone the act of arson, but I support the aim," says Randall Amster, the ASU Justice Studies instructor leading the Save Tempe Butte campaign. "You defeat the Citizens Growth Initiative, you find the Sierra Club falling asleep at the wheel, and nobody seems to be doing much. So in any kind of macro perspective, you can kind of see how frustration could mount to the point where they might see arson as a viable way."

Amster says he frequently talks to other environmentalists about the arsonist -- partly to hear their opinions, partly to play the environmentalist community version of Clue to try to figure out the arsonist's identity.

"Almost universally, most were clearly sympathetic with what the person is -- in theory -- trying to do. Not too many came out in support of the arson act, but in general people were, like, 'This is what it's starting to come to. We're running out of space, and if we don't put the brakes on, it will be too late in 10 or 20 years.' There was a 'the time is now' kind of quality."



One group, the Phoenix Anarchists Coalition, even debated whether to issue a public endorsement of the arsonist. Though the group fell short of the consensus required for such a statement, member Brian Tomasi went on record to say that the wealthy "think they can buy and sell whatever they want, regardless of the repercussions for the rest of us or the environment. And the arsonist is saying a very clear, 'No, that is not allowed.'"

At the conservative end of the environmental spectrum, Grant Woods worked with the Sierra Club and Governor Jane Hull to draft sprawl-control proposals. So, c'mon, honestly, isn't he quietly rooting for the arsonist, too?

"Not for this guy, but you can see why I'm sympathetic with the Sierra Club and other groups that want to preserve the environment," Woods says. "People are frustrated with sprawl, no question. If people want to pave over every square inch of the desert and mountains, then we will wreck this place. And ultimately the builders will leave and go someplace else, and the rest of us will probably be stuck here."


Listen to environmentalists of all stripes, and you will hear the word "frustration."

Gary R. Perlstein, a frequently published expert on terrorism and a Portland State University professor, says frustration is a terrorism precursor, and he is not surprised that "eco-terrorist" acts are occurring more frequently.



"When you're young, we basically promise change to you," he says. "We promise it to you in school, we promise it to you in politics. Especially with the Clinton-Gore administration, I think it was expected with Gore being environmentally oriented [that there would be more change]. You add to that the feeling that change is supposed to happen quickly -- which using computers teaches young people -- then frustration is built in. And, too often, frustration leads to aggression."

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd