If a Democrat is a Republican in denial, a middle-class militant is a glutton with a bellyache. The Oregonian brats who ratted each other out to avoid serving jail sentences for arson attacks against timber companies are proof of the superficiality of such diaper-rash radicalism. Of the dozen or so members of the Earth Liberation Front who were charged with terrorist acts, only three had the courage to face the consequences of their actions. The rest spilled their guts to the feds and then went home and hid under the protective skirts of entitlement. For his part, Daniel McGowen was branded a terrorist and sentenced to seven years in a special cell.
“If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” takes multiple approaches to issues related to militant protest in the shut-your-mouth era of clamped-down democracy, when all it takes to be labeled a terrorist is to impede the destructive actions of an impetuous capitalist.
The ELF were a group of radical environmentalists who claimed responsibility for arson attacks against timber companies, horse slaughterhouses and a ski lodge in Colorado that was endangering the surrounding forests. As their strikes against property never caused harm to human beings, the FBI’s labeling them as “the number one domestic terrorist threat” was somewhat exaggerated.
McGowen is no Timothy McVeigh. He is more like an overgrown baby who threw a rock a the school bully. The film takes a cold, hard look at police violence against dissenters, not only in their footage of the WTO police riots in Seattle, but in rare films showing the sadistic torturing of environmental activists in Oregon. Now, a bunch of well-fed malcontents have no right to go around burning down businesses, but they do have a right to form barricades to protect the deforestation of their environs by greedy timber companies. But when the rights of the people are curtailed, some of them are bound get a little sociopathic in their next-stage response.
In the end, we are left with the question of how dissent can be expressed in a climate in which non-violent protest is punished with assault by chemical sprays and billy clubs, and militant action results in being branded a terrorist when the march for peace has ended.