Recently, a couple of semi-humorous stories made me think about a far graver set of issues, and one that might be one of the major ethical and religion-related issues of the coming years. When does a political cause become such a matter of life and death that it demands illegal actions?
The main news story concerned the truly bizarre affair at England’s Gatwick airport, where reported drone activity shut down this hugely busy transit point just before Christmas. Many flights were cancelled, over a hundred thousand people had their travel plans ruined. If you noticed the story, you might have tut-tutted at the idiotic vandalism, or perhaps expressed momentary wonder that a toy could have wrought such ruin. If you then followed the story further – and read the debates as to how many drones there actually were, or if (good grief!) there were any at all, you might have wondered about the basic competence of British police.
But that farcical outcome belies a deeper truth, namely that for a couple of years, something like the Gatwick scenario has been very high on the list of what law enforcement agencies feared, and it was that expectation that made them so ready to expect the worst in this event. They over-reacted because if fitted precisely what they were expecting.
Here is the real background. For years, environmental activists have been decrying carbon emissions, which are related to global warming, and projections of the seriousness of that warming have become grimmer as the years have gone on. (I don’t need here to discuss any disagreements over detailed points of evidence). In Britain especially, extremists have sought to disrupt air traffic, which they view as a major cause of emissions. This has involved organizing invasions of airfields, so that aircraft cannot take over due to protesters on the runway. In different ways, air travel has become a critical target for activism. Hence the fears about drones.
Over the past year, climate activists have coalesced into a group or network using the title Extinction Rebellion, ER, a potent phrase suggesting that the danger from emissions is so great that it justifies direct action and open violations of law. No, not justifies: demands. As their website proclaims, “We are facing an unprecedented global emergency. The government has failed to protect us. To survive, it’s going to take everything we’ve got.”
To date, this “everything” has among other things led to militants blocking London bridges during rush hour, bringing traffic to a halt for miles around (with similar actions in other cities). Even if ER militants were not involved in the Gatwick drone affair, then such plans have been under lively discussion in eco-terror circles. And be very sure that the same events will occur again: the Gatwick affair means that the genie – or the drone – is now definitively out of the bottle. These assaults will occur in Britain, and just as certainly, in the US and other advanced nations. The likelihood of prolonged and devastating actions against civilian air travel are very high.
All of which brings me to the ethical point. Climate-related concern has become very widespread in American religious institutions across the spectrum. At the same time, liberal opinion generally is very supportive of what they see as non-violent activism, represented for instance by campaigns of Black Lives Matter or other protests to shut down highways and bridges. Fearing a public backlash, local governments and police have generally let such protests run their course. No police chief wants to end up in the history books alongside the predecessors who used water cannon against civil rights demonstrators fifty years ago.
So here is a question. Assume that something like the Gatwick events occur in the US, with the goal of disrupting air traffic. Imagine that repeatedly, protesters invade airfields, their drones attack air space, and air traffic becomes somewhere between chancy and impossible. And as every seasoned traveler knows, disruption at just one key airport reverberates through the whole system (“You may want to fly from Salt Lake City to LAX, but I’m afraid your aircraft couldn’t get out of Atlanta, so we have to cancel.”) As I remarked, the only question about this scenario is whether it will hit sooner rather than later.
I mentioned a couple of recent stories making me think about such things. Eco-terrorism in a religious context was also the theme of the much touted and wildly over-rated film First Reformed. I personally found the film so bad – comically dreadful writing, heavy handed, and so over the top melodramatic – that at first I thought it was a gorgeous parody of pretentious film-making, of Bold Films About Big Ideas. Possibly a latter day Mel Brooks contribution? Sadly, it wasn’t (although it will win an Oscar). But the film did pose the issue of believers, and specifically clergy, deciding that the defense of the Earth is a life and death matter that demands the abandonment of legality, even to the point of donning a suicide vest.
So if such attacks and interventions occur, what do authorities do? One solution – actually, the only effective solution – is to monitor and infiltrate protest groups and arrest them before they can carry out their plans. And any direct actions would need to be broken up, decisively. Where would the churches stand on that? My bet is that they would protest themselves, very loudly, especially as they share the activists’ concern over the climate crisis. We are fighting an extinction rebellion – what a concept! What a title.
Somewhere along the line, we need to think very hard about what constitutes “non-violent” protest. Where does eco-protest end and eco-terror begin?