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Jennifer De Lucia
IF A TREE FALLS is a rare behind-the-curtain look at the Earth Liberation Front, the radical environmental group that the FBI calls America's 'number one domestic terrorist threat.' With unprecedented access and a nuanced point of view, the documentary tells the story of Daniel McGowan, an ELF member who faced life in prison for two multi-million dollar arsons against Oregon timber companies. The film employs McGowan's story to examine larger questions about environmentalism, activism, and terrorism. Written by
There's a show on the National Geographic Channel called "Locked Up Abroad" about people who have no real goals in life and because of short-sighted acts of criminality wind up imprisoned in foreign lands.
The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) members depicted here seem like stateside equivalents of these naive and myopic drifters. Taking up arms against Oregon lumber mills seems to give them a raison d'etre and a way to belong -- and consequences to the victims or themselves be damned.
This film spotlights the case of Daniel McGowan, the rather desultory, 20-something son of a New York City cop who finds a calling with the ELF, which opposes things like old-growth lumbering and genetic engineering and takes to burning down some of the places it believes take part in such activities.
While it surely seems wrong for the wood industry to harvest thousand-year-old timber, when a tree is felled, six more must be planted, as one trade representative explains. However, none of the activists is ever asked to comment about that, which seems one of the few glaring omissions in this largely balanced documentary.
McGowan comes across as an easy-going, principled young man with an unfortunate tendency to overlook the consequences of his actions until they're splashed across TV screens on the evening news. All too belatedly, he realizes that when you torch someone else's property, all people will focus on is the mayhem you have wrought -- your lofty ideals get lost in the rubble.
It's hard on McGowan's laconic father and his sympathetic and self-sacrificing sister when he finally cops a plea -- like nearly all of his fellow compatriots in crime -- although in contrast to many, McGowan declines to rat out any peer. This lands him a seven-year sentence in an Illinois prison for terrorists.
The film lavishes too much time on the question of whether felons like McGowan should be considered terrorists if they scrupulously have avoided injuring or killing people. Yet, as one US official points out, you don't have to be Bonnie and Clyde to be a bank robber, nor Osama bin Laden to be a terrorist.
So quiet-spoken McGowan will carry the label of terrorist for the rest of his days.
This thought-provoking work is an effective argument against emotion-driven mischief-making. If you want to make a change in a democracy you'd better do so without destroying your opponents' stuff -- the Boston Tea Party notwithstanding.
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