It’s a good thing fires never kill people.
Oh, wait — they do?
Even, sometimes, blazes that weren’t set by cretins bent on murder?
I’m feigning ignorance about the lethality of fires to illustrate what seems to me the absurdity of an argument proffered in print by a couple of professors from Linfield College. They imply, among other things in an op-ed published Saturday in The Oregonian, that people who burn ski resorts and torch SUVs have much more in common with Martin Luther King Jr. than with Timothy McVeigh.
The op-ed was written by David Sumner, an associate professor of English at the McMinnville college, and Lisa Weidman, an assistant professor of mass communication.
Their subject is Rebecca Rubin, a member of a group that caused $40 million in property damage in several incidents from 1996 to 2001, including the 1998 attempt to destroy a Colorado ski area.
Rubin, who fled to her native Canada after the crimes but later returned to the U.S., recently pleaded guilty to several charges. She has not been sentenced.
The professors acknowledge that Rubin is a criminal who deserves to be punished.
(Which is no great concession, considering she admitted as much herself, in court.)
But these educators devote most of their words to arguing that Rubin, and some of her fellow fire bugs, are getting a raw deal in two ways:
• They are routinely branded by prosecutors and the media as “eco-terrorists.”
• Some of these criminals have been given longer prison terms under the “terrorism enhancement” provision in the federal Patriot Act.
The professors contend that Rubin is a saboteur, but not a terrorist, because her crimes didn’t harm anybody and because they were committed “in defense of the natural world,” but not intended to hurt people.
I don’t doubt the latter is true.
But it doesn’t matter.
Rubin and her confederates knew, as any lucid adult knows, that when fires get started people will show up to try to put them out.
Sometimes those people get hurt.
Indeed, a couple of firefighters were injured while extinguishing a fire that Rubin’s group started.
The flames don’t care that your goal was to protect lynx from a ski lodge or to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from gas-guzzlers.
Flames are as apolitical as a hurricane or a tornado.
They just burn, whatever and whoever happens to be within combustible range.
The notion, as the professors put it, that people such as Rubin are less culpable than actual terrorists because they’re “philosophically opposed to hurting or injuring other living things” is the sort of flimsy, “but I didn’t mean to” excuse most commonly employed by boys who bust one of their mom’s antique crystal goblets during an impromptu game of catch in the backyard.
Once you’ve lit the match you’ve potentially endangered others’ lives, and your philosophy, your intent, become worthless drivel.
It’s not as if Rubin and her pals waited around to make sure nobody got close enough to scorch an eyebrow. They scurried away, as criminals are wont to do.
The one minor aspect about which I might agree, in one sense, with the professors is on the question of whether or not Rubin ought to be punished more severely because the word “terrorism” is attached to her crimes.
The difference is that they believe some arsonists deserve lesser punishment.
But I think all arsonists should be treated just as harshly as Rubin and her friends have been, whether the goal is to destroy a fleet of Hummers or to collect a big insurance check.
The truly appalling part of the professors’ argument, though, is their attempt to cast Rubin as a First Amendment warrior whose actions, though technically criminal, were prompted by noble causes.
The gist of their case is that America, by treating “eco-terrorists” as a special sort of criminal, infringes on our freedoms.
“Rubin should be punished for her property crimes, but to call what she did terrorism is to misuse the word,” the professors wrote. “And to misuse the word is to threaten our First Amendment rights.”
Notwithstanding that the professors are on shaky semantic ground with regard to the word terrorism, they leap from that questionable claim to one that seems to me preposterous.
“The cost,” they wrote, “is to our freedom to protest the actions of other people that we feel are wrong. Where does that leave Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King and the long American tradition of civil disobedience?”
The professors also refer to “Libertarian activist Ron Arnold,” who came up with the word “eco-terrorist” in 1983.
“If Arnold had his way,” they wrote, “sitting in at a lunch counter or blocking a factory gate would not be merely illegal, but would be terrorism.”
The obvious response here is “so what?”
Arnold has not had his way, nor is he ever likely to. He’s irrelevant.
If Rubin and her friends had merely blocked a factory gate — or in their case, say, chained themselves to heavy equipment at the ski resort site — they probably wouldn’t be in prison, and they certainly wouldn’t have been prosecuted as terrorists.
But they didn’t block things they don’t like.
They burned them.
The difference between these two tactics seems not to be a significant one for the two professors.
But then I didn’t detect much in the way of clarity or consistency elsewhere in their op-ed, either.
The professors start by arguing that Rubin is guilty of sabotage but not of terrorism.
Yet in later paragraphs the professors replace, as if by magic, “sabotage” with “protest,” as though these are synonymous in the context of Rubin’s crimes.
Then the authors stray even further down this path by implying that “vandalism” and “arson” are forms of protest — but again, neither act constitutes terrorism so long as the arsonists and vandals are “careful not to injury or kill anyone.”
In the case of fires this can be more a matter of good luck than of careful planning.
Which brings me back to Thoreau and King, who seem to have been brought in, against their will, from some wholly different discussion.
King’s career has been researched in exhaustive detail yet I don’t recall that he ever employed fires — even carefully ignited ones — to forward his righteous cause.
He marched from Selma to Montgomery, but he didn’t torch either place, nor any town between.
(Although a certain hood-wearing group that didn’t think much of Mr. King certainly didn’t hesitate to break out the lighter fluid to try to make its point.)
King did, however, possess the courage to stage his protests in the illuminated public square, to defy the unjust and to accept, with dignity, the punishment that came with his defiance.
He didn’t slink around under cover of night, lugging cans full of nasty, polluting petroleum products.
As for Thoreau, I’m sure he sparked quite a few blazes in his time.
But he can hardly be blamed for that. I imagine it got pretty cold, living in a cabin in Massachusetts before central heating.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.