Violence, Domestic Terrorism, and the Academy Awards

Promotional poster for "If a Tree Falls"

I know you’d never bomb, commit arson, or destroy property, even if it is for a good cause.  It’s not that you don’t feel deeply about social justice, you’d just never even consider using violence.  (I’m making an obvious assumption here that underground members of the Earth Liberation Front, Animal Liberation Front, KKK, or even al-Qaeda are not regular readers of this blog.)  So, violence is far from your reality.  But is it really?  Could you do it?

Who are these people setting fire to SUVs, releasing animals from fur farms, and bombing research labs?  How could Timothy McVeigh be so callous?  What kind of person would do such a thing?

Sociologists recoil with horror at the talk of “kinds of people” because we realize that individual personalities or predispositions don’t cause violent behavior (although some might concede the occasional exception), social situations do.  Case in point: Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment in which ordinary people, at the encouragement of an authority figure in a laboratory setting, administer potentially lethal electrical shocks to a man they believe to be another volunteer in the experiment.  Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment is another dramatic example.  Research has shown time and time again that good people will do bad things because circumstances propel them to.

This issue gets top billing in one of this year’s Academy Award-nominated documentary films, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.  The film’s director, Marshall Curry, recently spoke with NPR’s Neal Conan about the film, the changing definition of terrorism, and how a seemingly normal kid from Queens, NY could decide to use violence.  While the film doesn’t answer the question of violence, it should be commended for taking what appears to be a black-and-white issue (bad people use violence, good people don’t) and showing its complexity.  As the filmmaker explains, he stumbled upon the story of Daniel McGowan, the kid from Queens, when his wife reported that her young coworker had just been arrested for domestic terrorism.  As the case unfolded in subsequent years, damning evidence surfaced that revealed the extent of Daniel’s participation in a multi-million dollar arson and provided a rare look inside the ELF’s unyielding campaign to protect forests.

William Gamson (1975: 81) has argued,

“violence is not the product of frustration, desperation, and weakness…Violence should be viewed as an instrumental act, aimed at furthering the purposes of the group that uses it when they have some reason to think it will help their cause…It grows from an impatience born of confidence and rising efficacy rather than the opposite.”

In Gamson’s study (which is definitely worth a look), it’s the large groups that use violence and, to the surprise of many, it works!  Large groups, Gamson reasons, are stronger than small groups so they have reason to believe violence could work.  But the ELF—it’s small, has no budget, lacks an organizational infrastructure, and if the case of Daniel McGowan is any indication its members are inexperienced.

Is this the position of strength that Gamson had in mind?  What circumstances could lead members of the ELF to believe that violence would be effective in advancing their cause?  Your assignment: watch the film (now streaming on Netflix) and report back.

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