Tree spiking = Beheading ergo Environmentalism = Terrorism

Moral equivalence is among the standard logical fallacies identified by philosophers. “It seeks to draw comparisons”, goes a definition, “between different, often unrelated things, to make a point that one is just as bad as the other”.

For lecturers in logic seeking a perfect case study, one has just been published by the federal government in its booklet Preventing Violent Extremism and Radicalisation in Australia.

The booklet sets out in simple language the nature of violent extremism, describes how young people can be radicalized and suggests what can be done about it. It focuses on the processes by which young people might be radicalized, turned from ordinary, law-abiding members of society into violent fanatics, and it includes a table of what to look for if you are worried about a friend or family member.

  • They cut themselves off from society.
  • They become completely absorbed in a group or ideology and no longer relate to friends and family members.
  • They become very hostile to the “enemy” including the police and the government.
  • They see violence as an acceptable way to achieve their ideological goals.

Those being radicalized, we are told, typically begin to use hate rhetoric, blame an enemy for the world’s ills, dehumanize opposition groups, become increasingly suspicious and collect and share violent material from the internet.

It is troubling to find, more so in light of events in Parramatta in recent days, that among the kinds of violent extremists the pamphlet identifies as threatening “Australia’s core values and principles” are those motivated by “environmental causes”. The moral equivalence fallacy is used in a case study. “Karen” is an environmental activist who appears alongside Khazaal the would-be Al-Qaeda assassin, Erin the Muslim-bashing neo-Nazi, and Jay the paramilitary jihadi.

Jihadi Karen

By squeezing Karen into the radicalization template the booklet presents a ludicrous tabloid-version of the making of a dangerous greenie. It goes like this.

Fun-loving university student Karen attends an environmental protest and gets mixed up with a radical green group. She becomes increasingly absorbed in the extremist group and drops out of university to devote herself to forest protests. She cuts links with her loving family and drifts away from her friends. She begins to see herself as “a soldier for the environment”, spiking trees, sabotaging machinery and getting into fights with police and loggers, ending up in jail.

Eventually Karen becomes disillusioned. She struggles to redefine her identity, adopts “a more moderate eco-philosophy” and takes a paid job with a mainstream environment group. As a result her former extremist brothers-in-arms feel “completely betrayed”.

For anyone who knows anything about green activist groups and those who join them this story is risible. Firstly, there is no violent environmental extremism in Australia. There has been only one confirmed instance of tree spiking and that occurred at the Terania Creek rain forest protests in 1979 when a couple of protesters, alarmed at the accelerated pace of logging, broke with the majority, went into the forest at night and drove steel spikes into trees scheduled for logging. They left signs to warn loggers not to risk their chainsaws on them.

The booklet’s implicit moral equivalence of tree-spiking with explosions, shootings and beheadings is absurd and inflammatory.

The characterization of environmental activist groups as closed, hostile to outsiders, and living in a secretive world of ideological fanaticism is comically inaccurate. These groups are porous and democratic in their operations. Those involved do not shun their friendships and families, and often receive their support. If someone joins and begins behaving like a “radical extremist” they are soon edged out, suspected of being mentally unstable or an agent provocateur.

The sharp distinction in Karen’s story between groups engaged in non-violent direct action and mainstream environment groups has no basis in fact. Activists move between the two, and friendships cross over.

So who is Karen? She may be the face of environmental activism in the imagination of Attorney-General George Brandis, who wants to change the laws to nobble “radical green activists” so they cannot “sabotage” development with “vigilante litigation”. But in recent times the two stand-out cases of unlawful activism could not be further from the cartoon greenie of the pamphlet.

The first is Jonathan Moylan, the anti-coal activist who caused outrage among business leaders and politicians by issuing a hoax media release announcing that ANZ Bank had decided to withdraw funding from Whitehaven Coal.

He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 20 months in jail, with his sentence suspended, but his action was highly effective in gaining public attention to the cause and drawing activists to the anti-Whitehaven protest camp. (His parents were supportive throughout.)

The second is David Pocock who chained himself to digging machinery in an attempt, along with hundreds of others, to prevent the opening up of a new coalmine. A year after his arrest and conviction, Pocock is now wowing the crowds in England as the in-form flanker for the Wallabies.

Myths and half-truths

The Attorney-General’s Department says it prepared the booklet based on expertise provided by Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre (and it thanks a number of the Centre’s staff). Three years ago the Centre won a large ARC linkage grant to investigate radicalization, but one has to ask whether it was money well spent if the Monash experts were those who have trouble distinguishing between David Pocock and Man Haron Monis.

There are two aspects of the release of this booklet that are particularly worrying. The first is the linking of environmental activism to violent terrorism. To be sure, in the fevered imaginations of right-wing commentators at 2GB and the Murdoch press they are morally equivalent. But to give this kind of anti-environmental fanaticism the Commonwealth’s official imprimatur panders to dangerously anti-democratic sentiment.

The second anxiety is that the Karen case study is not based on an informed understanding of environmental activism but draws on tabloid headlines and conservative rumour. If the authors of this document can paint a picture of radicalization that has no bearing on the real world of environmental activism, one has to ask whether the rest of the document is also based on myths and half-truths.

The Government expects that the booklet will be distributed in Australian schools. But why would teachers hand children a document that uses the fear of terrorist attacks to vilify environmentalism? And why would they distribute an information booklet that is, at least in part, based on disinformation?

An official pamphlet on a subject as grave as terrorism ought not to be tarnished by an ideological agenda or distorted by misinformation. It should be withdrawn and pulped. If a corrected version without Jihadi Karen is prepared then it ought to be reviewed by independent experts to ensure the rest of it reflects the best understanding of its subject matter.

First published by The Conversation, 5 October 2015.


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