Some left-leaning activists, such as John Sellers, director of the Ruckus Society, which provides training in nonviolent civil disobedience, agree that in the United States, in particular, property destruction usually alienates more people from a cause than it attracts.
"I don't think the American public understands it as a political act," Sellers said, "because of the way that private property is seen as a sacred right."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Pipe-bombing aftermath -- In a story in Monday's Calendar about radical environmental and animal rights activists, the reaction of employees at a Bay Area biotech firm that had been pipe bombed was mischaracterized. The story said employees at Chiron have grown nervous since the attack. Company spokesman John Gallagher said employees are "obviously concerned, but they have shown remarkable resilience and focus on their work."
Although much militant activism originated in the United States -- think of Earth First! activists "spiking" trees to destroy logging equipment or the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ramming whaling ships -- such destruction is generally more likely to be accepted as a political statement in Europe. This is in part because Europeans tend to hold a less sacrosanct view of property ownership than do Americans.
But it may also be because actions there are often staged openly and explained to the public, such as in 1995 when anti-nuclear protesters sabotaged a nuclear weapons plant in England, sealing its main water discharge pipe with 6 tons of cement.
That activists are seen as willing to risk jail time for their cause often garners greater support than anonymous attacks.
French farmer Jose Bove, a darling of the anti-globalization movement, for example, recently was freed from prison after enormous public pressure. Bove, who remains under surveillance at home, had been sentenced to 10 months for destroying two experimental fields of genetically modified rice and corn.
He became famous in 1999 when he and other members of a left-wing farm union used their tractors to destroy a McDonald's restaurant that was under construction in Millau, France. They then reportedly drove to the town center to publicly explain why they had done it. The incident drew significant public support. At a trial, tens of thousands of supporters gathered outside the courthouse.
Bron Taylor, a professor of religion and environmental studies at the University of Florida, has studied the radical environmental movement for 15 years. "I don't think you can really understand these kinds of movements if you don't understand that people in these movements have a deep spiritual connection to the natural world," he said.
"They think there's a war against nature and they are going to fight a war against nature's destroyers," Taylor added.
Among environmentalists, especially since the beginning of the Bush administration, "there's an incredible amount of frustration that things are not getting any better," agreed sociology professor Scarce.
The number of radical activists is not necessarily high, Scarce said. "No one knows if the number of activists is increasing or not," he said in an e-mail. "That's part of the 'no membership card' side of the movements. In a sense, head counts don't matter. It's action that counts to those involved."
According to the FBI, California has reported the highest number of attacks on property in recent years, followed by Oregon, New York and Washington. Further, the frequency of these actions and the amount of damage they cause is escalating. Before this summer's California attacks, the ELF claimed responsibility for $100 million in damages over six years.
The mainstream media are partly to blame for the rise because they don't cover enough conventional political protests, said Jason Salzman, author of "Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits," a book of tips for garnering media coverage of issues or events.
Salzman, a former Greenpeace senior manager who said he is committed to nonviolent protest, points to the anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle at the 1999 World Trade Organization's annual meeting, which resulted in sometimes violent confrontations between protesters and police. Anarchist groups such as the so-called Black Bloc broke windows at Nike and Starbucks stores, among others.
"Traditional forms of democratic expression don't get the kind of media coverage that aggressive tactics do," Salzman said. "If it hadn't been for the violence, I wonder how much of the message would have gotten out."
Though the protests may not have ended global capitalism, they appear to have increased the clout of both poor countries and nongovernmental organizations in international trade negotiations. This year's WTO meeting in Cancun, Mexico, for example, ended last month without agreement largely because developing countries resisted demands made by the United States and Europe.
Salzman laments what he sees as a tendency among activists to fall back on destruction as the only option. "Creative protests can go very far in getting the message out in a nonviolent way," he said.
Such violence has many people on edge. An animal rights group calling itself Revolutionary Cells -- Animal Liberation Brigade recently claimed responsibility for exploding two pipe bombs outside Chiron, a biotechnology company in Emeryville, Calif.