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by David Graeber
Friday, Jun. 29, 2001 at 5:25 PM
FLAMING CARS AND AMERICAN JUSTICE
by David Graeber
If, as Montesquieu claimed, the moral character of a nation is best seen through the spirit of its laws, then America is in big trouble. At least if the recent sentencing of environmental activist Jeff Luers to almost twenty-three years in a federal penitentiary has anything to say about the matter.
Leurs, who goes by the activist name "Free", was previously known mainly for having built tree sits in 200 foot tall old-growth Douglas fir trees to prevent loggers from destroying an ancient forest watershed near Eugene, Oregon.
In June, 2000, he set a fire in a deserted chevy dealership outside Eugene that damaged three pickup trucks - as a way, he later explained to the court, of drawing attention to the perils of global warming. An extreme act, perhaps, but as Free emphasized, he had taken every possible measure to do it in such a way that no one could have been hurt. "It cannot be said that I am unfeeling or uncaring," he explained. "My heart is filled with love and compassion. I fight to protect life....all life. Not to take it."
Judge Velure evidently disagreed, and sentenced Free to 22 years and 8 months in prison, remarking dryly that Free had evidently not given any thought to the firemen whose lives might have been endangered if the fire had somehow gotten out of hand.
But if one really wants to understand the nature of justice in America, consider this:
Some years ago it came out that many Ford vehicles - including, ironically enough, the Crown Victorias used as police cars across America - contain a flaw in their engines which often causes them, when hit, to burst into flames. Ford was aware of the problem; they designed, and patented, a device which could have prevented it. But then they decided not to install it. Why? In this case we know, because someone leaked the document. Ford executives made the following calculation. It would cost roughly ten
dollars per car to fix the problem. Doing so, they estimated, would prevent the deaths of about a hundred people per year, and the maiming of another fifty. They then went on to calculate how many of the victims' families were likely to sue, how much money they were likely be awarded, and after totaling the figures, concluded that installing the device would cost more than simply absorbing the cost of damages.
None of this should be all that surprising; this is the kind of calculation they teach you to make in business school. But think again of Free. He torched a few empty cars and the judge sent him up the river for 23 years because, he claimed, his act might (under extremely unlikely circumstances) have harmed some firemen. These Ford executives signed a piece of paper which according to their own calculations would mean that hundreds of men, women, and children - including numerous police officers - would be killed or crippled in flaming cars for years to come. And in doing so they were obviously not motivated by love, but the coldest, calculating greed.
Yet according to American law, they're not even criminals.
The greatest irony of all, though, is that Free was punished so severely precisely because he was motivated by higher feelings. In the mainstream media, acts like his are starting to be called "eco-terrorism", and there are increasingly calls for legislation against it - laws, that is, that would ensure that anyone who commits a crime will be punished more severely if it could be proved they were inspired by love of nature rather than by, say, malice or greed. Since Free was trying to make a point about global warming, the D.A. consistently referred to him as an "eco-terrorist." It's not clear who, exactly, he Free was supposed to be "terrorizing" (car dealers? firemen?) but it's very clear who Judge Velure was trying to terrorize. He knew perfectly well what it means to sentence a scrawny 27-year-old idealist to decades in a federal penitentiary. He did it as a way to "send a message", as they like to say-in other words, to strike terror into the hearts of anyone who might feel tempted to emulate Free. Since, after all, if everyone concerned about the destruction of the planet felt they could go to the nearest car dealership and trash an, it might end up doing some serious damage to the profits of...well, people like those Ford executives.
What Montesquieu would have had to say about that, I hesitate to say.
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