Jim Fleming: And there's one devil we never sympathize with: the terrorist. "But, hold on, not so fast," says filmmaker Marshall Curry. His documentary If a Tree Falls follows Daniel McGowan, a convicted terrorist, currently serving time. McGowan used Arson as a political protest with the Earth Liberation front, a group the F.B.I. considers America's number one domestic terrorist threat. Steve Paulson spoke with filmmaker Marshall Curry about Daniel's story.
Marshall Curry: My wife, who was running a domestic violence organization in Brooklyn, came home from work one day and told me, "You're never going to guess what happened at work today. Four federal agents walked into the office and arrested that guy Daniel McGowan." And I knew him a little bit threw her, you know from the company picnics and things like that, but he was very unlike my expectation of what somebody might be like who had been part of the Earth Liberation Front. And that was really what was intriguing to us. You know, obviously, my wife and I had no idea that he had this in his past. And he'd grown up in Rockaway, Queensâ€¦ you know his dad's a New York cop, he was a business major at college, so maybe not your typical radical environmentalist background.
Steve Paulson: Well it seams to me one of the themes of your film is how a becomes radicalized. How does a quote, "normal person," become so radicalized that he's willing to set off incendiary devices to blow up buildings.
Marshall: Yeah, well just to be clear that the devices that they did were not bombs, so they didn't actually explode, but they had timers that would light huge tubs of fuel that would cause these big fires. So, not to downplay what it was, but just to be clear, they weren't bombs.
Marshall: But, yeah, I mean that was really my question. How could somebody whose background was like Daniel's wind up committing these huge multi-million dollar arsons. And, you know, it's a coming of age story in certain ways. What happens?
Daniel McGowan: I got off to northern California. I had never seen trees like that before. It had a really profound impact on me. I was already quite radicalized, but I couldn't believe the fact that people accepted what was going on. I have memories of like, for the first time, seeing log trucks and being like, whoah. You saw the mills, or you go into the forest and you stumble upon a clear cut. Like, it just blew me away. Just the arrogance of it. I thought, man this is butchered. You it made me think, like, why are we being so gentle? Why are we so gentle in our activism when this is what's happened, you know?
Marshall: I think people have a very planted viewpoint of social change. No real social change has happened without pressure, without force, without - some would say intimidating governments and corporations into changing their behavior.
Steve: So, take us through Daniel's own process of becoming radicalized. How did he go from someone who was just, you know, sort of marginally interested in environmental issues toâ€¦ to taking such extreme measures.
Marshall: Well, I think it was a combination of strong feelings for the environment, which came to him very late. You know he had grown up in queens and had gone to school in New York; had never spent the night outdoors until after college, and so one day he was out in Union Square and someone asked him to sign a petition. And he started a conversation with her and she invited him to a place called Wetlands, which was a, kind of a bar, concert hall, and environmental center that used to be in downtown Manhattan. And he went, and when he was there he became exposed to all of the environmental problems that were facing the world. And they had speakers come, they had films there, and he began to feel like this was an incredibly important issueâ€¦ the way that people are treating the environment. And so, you know, as he describes it he got involved very, very quickly. And, like a lot of folks, it started with letter-writing and petition-gathering, and over time he began to feel like that wasn't really effective enough and he got involved in civil disobedience and was arrested doing a sit-in, and eventually felt like that wasn't enough and got involved in small acts of property destruction. You know, breaking windows and things like that. And again felt like that wasn't enough. And so he got involved with the Earth Liberation Front, which is this radical environmental group that is responsible for dozens of arsons all around the country, but during those years focused on the Northwest.
News Clip 1: In Vail, Colorado, the nation's busiest ski resort was hit by a fire. Arson is suspected.
News Clip 2: You may have heard of the Earth Liberation Front. The attorney general himself says it's a domestic terrorist organization. The F.B.I. says it's one of the most dangerous groups in the country.
News Clip 3: The E.O.F. has claimed responsibility for more than two dozen acts of eco-terrorism since 1996.
News Clip 4: Firebombings include attacks on lumber mills, wild horse corrals, and two meat-packing plants.
News Clip 5: So far, not one of the cases has ever been solved, and authorities acknowledge they know next to nothing about the membership, or the leadership of the organization.
Steve: And it's worth pointing out that they set off some huge fires, I mean that caused millions of dollars worth of damage in some cases, but as far a I know, no person was ever injured or killed in any of these acts of arson.
Marshall: That's right. And that is one of the big debates of the film. Is how do we assess what these fires are. The government considered them to be terrorists, considered the fires to be terrorism. And from the point of view of the arson victims, who we spend a lot of time with in the film, these acts were just designed to intimidate them, to terrorize them and in some cases they worked, I mean one of the owners, the timber company, said he didn't know if they were going to come after his family. He bought an alarm system for his house which he'd never had before. And to him, that's the essence of terrorism - when you use terror to try to force somebody to do something. From the point of view of folks who are more supportive of the Earth Liberation Front, they argue that this is not terrorism at all, this is the Boston Tea Party. It's symbolic property destruction. Nobody's ever been hurt in an Earth Liberation Front fire, and that's because they take great care to scope the places out and make sure that nobody's there and that in there minds, to use the same word to describe Al Qaeda, which you know is a group designed to murder people, to use the same word to describe them and to describe the Earth Liberation Front is really kind of stretching the word terrorist.
News Clip 6: Ecoterrorism. Terrorist acts by radical groups.
News Clip 7: Ecoterrorist.
News Clip 8: Ecoterrorism.
News Clip 9: Environmental terrorists.
Unknown 1: People need to question like, this buzzword, and how it's being used, any how it's just become the new communist, the new, you know it's like the boogeyman, it's the boogeyman word. It's like whoever I really disagree with is a terrorist.
Unknown 2: Some people have a problem with calling this terrorism that, when you're basically making the threat where people go home at night wondering if they're going to be a target, that's what terrorism is.
Unknown 3: After the fire, for a long time, we really looked over our shoulder. We put an alarm system in our home and things like that before we hadn't thought about.
Unknown 4: You know being a New Yorker, with experiencing terrorism first hand, is like, how are you going to call someone who sets fire to an empty buildingâ€¦ a terrorist. It's just inappropriate in every way, and it's an insult.
Steve: So at a certain point, Daniel himself felt like he had gone too far. That this was, this was wrong, what he had done.
Yeah, it's funny I think he feels very mixed about it. After that second fire I think he began to feel like it was ineffective. And, for one, he began to see that the media coverage focused entirely on the arsons and didn't focus on the things that they were trying to dray attention to. And everybody was just talking about whether they were going to catch these people, or how long they would go to prison, whether it's terrorism. And that was not the conversation I think they were hoping to spark. Uh, made him take a deep breath and say, wait a minute, what am I doing? This is big, this is dangerous. And at that point he stepped away from the Earth Liberation Front and moved back to New York and got involved in more above-ground activism. He worked at the rainforest foundation and was involved in protests against the Republican Convention when they were in New York, and finally was working at the domestic violence organization that my wife runs when he was arrested a few years after having done these fires.
New Clip 10: Investigators in the Pacific Northwest strongly suspect that two nearly simultaneous fires were acts of ecological terror.
Daniel: Monday morning, May 24, I got back to Eugene and I was just like, wow I really need to think about what I just did. Just seeing absolute ruins and realizing that all people were going to focus on was the fact that things were destroyed and that the issues are being lost and all they care about is catching the people that did it. They were talking about Jefferson Poplar and then they were talking about University of Washington. So finding out eventually what happened at University of Washington - the massive destruction to a library - not just the professor's office that was involved in this sort of research, but the center for urban horticulture. I was like, this is too much, too fast, too big. What am I doing?
Steve: What kind of sentence did Daniel get in the end?
Marshall: In the end he got seven years, which is significantly less than life in prison.
Steve: And he's still in prison right now?
Marshall: He is in prison right now. It's a little bit more thanâ€¦ er not a little bit. Almost twice as much s someone might normally get for similar acts of arson, if say, you burned a building for insurance money. But I think one of things that's been interesting is that the prison where he is is a communication management unit prison, which is essentially a terrorist prison that the Federal Government set up after 9/11, and he is isolated from the normal prison population. He is allowed a 15-minute phone call every week that's monitored, And he's allowed a single visit through bullet proof glass with a family member - approved member - once a month. And so, you know, the government feels that they need to do that, you know, to monitor his terrorist threat. But from his perspective that's incredibly frustrating. You know, he's a guy who had left the Earth Liberation Front on his own years before being arrested and he feels like it's completely inappropriate being in a terrorist prison, treated like that.
Steve: So I have to ask you, do you think the arson cases that Daniel McGowan was involved in were justified?
Marshall: I don't know, you know. There are times where I've been out in the the forest and I've seen surveying stakes layer down in a beautiful old forest and I've realized, wait, this is being set here to prepare for this forest being cut down, and there's a side of me that would love to pull up those surveying stakes. You know, I spent a lot of time obviously thinking about this issue, and when I was in college I studied religion. I really wanted to figure out if there was got and, you know, how we should live our lives. And I studied comparative religion and when I graduated one of my roommates said to me, you know, I'm still confused but just at a higher level. And in a way that's, on a lot of these issues I still feel confused but a higher level. I think they're complex. I don't think they're the kinds of things that you can just in the end give a one sentence answer that can be slapped on a bumper sticker or released as a sound byte. The reason that I made a 85-minute movie is that I feel like these questions are complex enough and nuanced enough that the best way to address them was in a 85-minute film. And if I sort of say, yes sabotage is good, or no, sabotage is evil, I sort of feel like I undercut the whole complexity that underpins the whole film.
Jim Fleming: Marshall Curry, talking about his documentary If a Tree Falls. The documentary was nominated for a 2012 Academy Award. Steve Paulson spoke with him.