Who's afraid of ELF?

Novelists, directors, playwrights, and journalists know that nothing spices up a story like a good villain. But only one of those groups is professionally prohibited from creating their evildoers out of thin air.

Yet that's exactly what some reports on the destruction this week of three luxury homes outside Seattle are doing, jumping to conclusions in order to give the story a boogeyman that simply isn't there.

First, the facts: Early Monday morning, five houses near Echo Lake, Washington, were damaged or destroyed. All of the houses were empty and no firefighters were hurt combating the blaze, but roughly $7 million worth of property was destroyed. A banner left at the scene attributed the crime to the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), described in the New York Times report as "a loosely organized group that has been linked to multiple bold acts of ecoterrorism across the Northwest and elsewhere for two decades."

"Loosely organized" is probably the key phrase in that description. The ELF shouldn't be thought of as a coherent group; rather, it exists primarily as a convenient banner under which individuals have committed crimes from petty vandalism to massive property damage. As an FBI agent told the Times, "There's no membership rolls. There's no clubhouse. It's more of an ideology."

You wouldn't know that from some of the press reports on the incident, however. The National Review's "Planet Gore" – the anti-environmental blog of the infamously neoconservative organ – made sure to criticize the "group" for the attacks. An NBC news reporter told Brian Williams on Monday night that "the FBI calls ELF an eco-terror group and says its followers have done more than $200 million worth of damage since 1990." And an analysis piece in the local Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran under the headline "Shadowy ELF saboteurs may be on the rise again" – a title as sensational as it is unsubstantiated.

Some news outlets tried to accurately portray the threat, but reporters' best intentions weren't always enough. On Greta van Susteren's FOX news show on Monday, a reporter for the Post-Intelligencer calmly explained that when it comes to the ELF, "you can almost not even call it a group. Basically, anybody who wants to claim that he or she is a member of Earth Liberation Front can do so." Minutes later, van Susteren was plowing ahead with her original characterization, asking a former ATF agent, "Have you ever heard of this group? Actually, I'm still being waved off calling it a group from the reporter. But, have you ever heard of ELF, Earth Liberation Front?"

Overblowing the threat posed by such isolated incidents isn't just sensationalist and inaccurate, it's also terrible for the environmental movement. Giving people the impression that highly organized bands of eco-terrorists are roaming the woods of the Northwest indirectly associates all green activists with extremism and violence. The danger of eco-terrorism has already been used in the recent past to attack mainstream animal rights groups such as PETA. Reporters don't need to make worse the actions of individual criminals by confusing them with real environmentalists.

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