Ecoterrorism (3/3): Discourse of Repression
Updated: Sep 17
Read the second article in the Ecoterrorism series here.
In late 2022, German political and public debate on climate activism has been specked with warnings of ecoterrorism (see here) – an unfounded accusation, according to researchers. Similarly, the French Minister of the Interior’s use of the term in the context of a protest against a water reservoir has caused wide-spread outrage (see here). Whether the use of the term is part of an intentional discursive strategy or a thoughtless exaggeration, it has the effect of further obscuring the meaning of terrorism and the potential to reinforce repression against those who exercise their right to political dissent.
It is therefore worth taking a closer look at what the term terrorism refers to – academically and politically – and where the concept of ecoterrorism originates. The present securitization of environmental and climate protests both in the media and in politics further warrants critical reflections on the mechanisms and effects of media discourse and developments in responses to and repression of political contestation both related to environmental and climate issues and more broadly.
Politically as well as academically, the concept of terrorism presents a challenge as there is no one commonly accepted definition of what constitutes an act of terrorism (1). Such understandings of terrorism are always socially constructed and bound up with cultural, political, and linguistic contexts. Describing someone as a terrorist is therefore always normative; a moral judgement, an accusation of violating society’s most basic norms.
Historically, the term terrorism was first used in public discourse in reference to the Jacobines’ régime de la terreur at the end of the French Revolution (1793/1794). Yet, while in this instance terreur describes a form of state terrorism, the violence exercised by the ruling powers against the people, terrorism nowadays most commonly is used to describe acts of violence aimed at changing rather maintaining the system or powers in place. The word was used in this sense for the first time in the late 19th century to describe Russian anti-government anarchists (1).
Within politics terrorism is often used in a broad sense making it possible to apply the concept to a wide variety of situations and acts depending on the current political situation. While there is no official definition of terrorism in international politics, different nation states have their own conceptualizations. France, for instance, defines terrorism as actions that "break with the rules of conventional warfare to compensate for the insufficiency of their means and achieve their political objectives". Terrorist violence, according to this definition, is targeted indiscriminately against civilians to constrain governments through the act’s impact on public opinion.
Germany, having adopted the EU’s definition of terrorism, defines it as "intentional acts, which […] may seriously damage a country or an international organization […] with the aim of: (i) seriously intimidating a population, or (ii) unduly compelling a Government or an international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act, or (iii) seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organisation" (1).
Academically, terrorism presents a challenge as there are an estimated number of 150 to 200 different definitions of the concept (1). It is, however, possible to single out certain frequent commonalities between different conceptualizations. These approaches to understanding terrorism often exclude state terrorism and instead focus on terrorism directed against states. It is described as a form of premeditated, deliberate, and systematic political violence – or the threat thereof – which targets humans. Terrorism’s targeting humans rather than focusing on the destruction of property distinguishes it from sabotage and vandalism. Even though its victims often are civilians, its wider target is governments (rather than smaller sub-groups within a society).
The violence of terrorism is considered as drastically exceeding the normal and thereby violates accepted norms of political dispute and contestation. And while the physical aspect of terrorist violence stands out, there is a simultaneous focus on its psychological effects, particularly in regard to the creation of widespread fear.
Terrorism differs from other acts of violence such as homicide in that its perpetrators do not seek to hide their crime but use it to attract attention to their cause. Unlike a guerrilla, which is able to carry out quasi-military operations and often enjoys widespread support, terror groups have a smaller number of members who tend to act independent of each other in the form of cells. Terrorism most often appears as a strategy in contexts of power imbalances. The less powerful – and thus arguably less politically legitimate – group resort to terrorism to avoid direct confrontation in which they would not be able to prevail. Terrorism thus differs from war in that it does not involve battles between military forces. Instead, armed groups – who are loyal to an ideology much more than a state – carry out surprise attacks against unprepared and unarmed civilians.
The Development Towards Environmental Activism as a Threat
Researchers observe a trend within Western democracies – particularly since 2001 – towards the labelling of environmental activists as a security threat with potential implications for these activists’ civil rights. While a 1999 report from the USA (Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why? The 1999 Government Report on Profiling Terrorists) is void of any mention of "ecoterrorism", Michael Loadenthal (professor and researcher specialized in political violence, terrorism and social movements) notices politicians beginning to use the term following the 9/11 terror attack. He draws a direct connection between lobbying for corporate interests of i.e., the animal industry and the denunciation of environmental and animal rights activists as ecoterrorists. In the US context, the FBI appears to have further contributed to the increased application of the term to activists who, to an overwhelming extent, do not pose any threat to human lives. In 2002, they presented a legal definition of the term which defines ecoterrorism as "the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of symbolic nature" (emphasis added).
While most scholars trace back the first uses of the term ‘ecoterrorism’ to the aftermath of 9/11, Travis Wagner (Professor in Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Southern Maine) argues – based on an analysis of six US national newspapers’ reporting on ecotage (ecological sabotage) from 1984 to 2006 – that while the shift towards labelling environmental activists as terrorists occurred in 2001, it precedes the attack on the World Trade Center. Wagner argues that articles before 2001 largely described environmental activists as rational persons who make use of civil disobedience. Starting in 2001, he observes that while reported acts of ecotage continuously decrease within the analyzed time period, reporting on these acts increased. Simultaneously, a fairly neutral discourse is replaced with fear- and conflict-based language that depicts acts of ecotage as terrorist violence.
Wagner names two possible explanations for this shift. Firstly, an (over-)reliance of journalists on federal agencies as their sources may lead to an overrepresentation of their perspectives so that if these change, reporting changes with it. Secondly, while the discourse on ecotage already began to change prior to 9/11, the emotional impact of the terror attack led to a broadening of the definition of terrorism that enabled the creation of the concept ‘ecoterrorism’ and further reinforced the first possible explanation.
The way events are represented in the media is never neutral but always influenced by reporters’ and editors’ perspectives as well as the perspectives shaping their sources. How information and journalistic tools are used – i.e., through the selection of images, the space or time dedicated to an issue and the language used to talk about it – influences how the issue is perceived. The more people consume a certain media, the greater the influences of its frames. Thus, mass media contributes – such as the Bild Zeitung in Germany which describes climate activists as Klima-Chaoten and "extremists" who "storm" airports, and liken them to the RAF – significantly to dominant risk perceptions within society.
Reporting on terrorism often makes use of a discourse of fear to frame the issue. Through this particular framing, fear becomes linked to terrorism; it becomes an automatic emotional response to mentions of terrorism, the association between the two is naturalized. Particularly post-9/11, the term terrorism has become charged with emotional associations and moral judgement.
There are several effects resulting from describing individuals or groups as or likening them to terrorists, either through the direct application of the label or through indirect framing when the same language that is used to describe acts of terrorism is used to report on other issues. The issue and involved actors are made to fit into a simplified contextual structure in order to transfer information to the public. Due to the attention the public and media pay to terrorism, the use of the term makes an issue more newsworthy. The emotional responses (fear) and value judgements (irrational, radical, unpatriotic, …) associated with terrorism are evoked in the audience. And while news reporting can be influenced by political discourse and responses to activism, media-use of labels such as ecoterrorism can in turn reinforce and justify repression against activists (2).
Ecoterrorism and Repression Against Political Dissent
Similar to the influence of frames within news reporting, labelling a person, group or act as ‘terrorist’ within political discourse is a powerful rhetorical tool. The labels that are chosen communicate assessments of, i.e., legitimacy of a political claim or protesting strategy, and influence the audience's reaction to the act or actor (1). In short, it matters a lot whether a person is referred to as ‘climate warrior’, ‘environmental activist’, or ‘ecoterrorist’. And while some, narrowly defined, labels are difficult to apply indiscriminately, labels such as terrorist are more easily used in a wide range of appropriate or inappropriate circumstances due to the lack of a precise and uniform definition. As such the term terrorism can easily be used to criminalize and delegitimize political contestation and lead to the use of anti-terrorism measures to repress activists (2).
Historian and political scientist Vanessa Condaccioni (Université Paris 8) observes a trend in political and police responses to protests in France that is marked by an increase in arrests, extensive custodies, trials, prison sentences, bans on protests, surveillance and mutilating or deadly police violence along with an assimilation of activism to terrorism (2). Sarah Pickard (professor of British Studies at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle) analyses a similar development in the UK where counter-terrorist measures are deployed against peaceful political dissent in the name of public order and security. Parallel to this process of securitization, protest policing moves away from consent-based strategies towards a militarized policing style characterized by coercion and the use of excessive force.
This trend, according to Condaccioni, functions on the basis of a double criminalization of activists through the police and justice system, but also through policy. Activists may be punished differently, i.e., more severely or in special courts, than other people due to a politicized criminalization of their dissent. Politically, they are identified as dangerous political enemies and the police, justice and prison systems are adapted accordingly. Yet, more common to current forms of repression is a depoliticizing criminalization. Activists are equated with ordinary criminals thus denying the political character of their actions and delegitimizing their dissent.
The depoliticizing of political contestation is not a new phenomenon. Yet, its integration into current repressive strategies is strengthened through an increase in pre-emptive measures that predict a crime before it happens, the labelling of activists as terrorists, and the denial of the existence of this very repression (2). By describing activists and protesters as hooligans, ordinary criminals, mad, or terrorists it is not only their contestation that is depoliticized but also the repression against them; the fact that it is not their crimes but their opinions and demands that are punished.
Concretely, the effects of framing environmental and climate activists as ecoterrorists can be seen in a number of examples. In 2018, a dozen activists were denied their right to protest during the UN Climate conference in Katowice (Poland) due to concerns for national security. In 2019, 600 indigenous and environmental activists were placed on a terrorist list in the Philippines. In the same year, 46 environmental activists, labelled terrorists, were killed there. In the UK, Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion (XR) are mentioned in the police’s counter-terrorism guide alongside right-wing extremist groups. Policing strategies in the context of the XR movement have been marked by controversial infiltration and incapacitation tactics which raised concerns about the repression of civil rights.
Both in France and in Germany there are tendencies towards preemptive responses to climate activism and more severe punishment combined with a political and media discourse that denounces environmental and climate activists, but also other protesters and activists, as criminals or even terrorists. This trend shows itself, for instance, in a Bavarian law allowing the drastic extension of custodies (initially an anti-terrorism measure) and its pre-emptive use against climate activists as well as in accusations of undemocratic behavior, criminality and terrorism that run through political and public debate.
Gérald Darmanin’s (Minister of the Interior, France) denunciation of climate activists as ‘ecoterrorists’, as criminals and extremists who only want ‘chaos and disorder’ presents a symbolic violence which delegitimizes and depoliticizes political contestation. It is a rhetoric reminiscent of the French government’s discourse during the Gilets jaunes movement to the effect of delegitimizing the protests and legitimizing repressive police violence against the protesters.
Article and cover photo by Merle Emrich.
(1) Liane Rothenberger (2020) Terrorismus als Kommunikation: Bestandsaufnahme, Erklärungen und Herausforderungen, Springer.
(2) Vanessa Condaccioni (2019) Répression: L‘État face aux contestations politique, textuel: Paris.