Salon asks what should be a rather simple question, but the answer apparently eludes them. Should someone who commits violent acts on civilian targets in order to promote their radical political views be called a terrorist? Apparently, the sobriquet only applies if one actually kills people, at least in Salon’s eyes. If you’re a quiet violin teacher who conspires to commit arson on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front for radical environmental causes, the government should give you a pass:

Earlier this month, on March 6, a federal jury in Tacoma, Wash., found Waters guilty of two counts of arson for serving as a lookout at the University of Washington fire. According to two women who testified against her in return for dramatically reduced sentences, Waters hid in a shrub near the Center for Urban Horticulture with a walkie-talkie, ready to alert the others if the campus police strolled by. Waters testified she wasn’t even in Seattle that night.

Although Waters was on trial for only the University of Washington arson, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Friedman charged that she was part of a conspiracy — a member of a “prolific cell” of the Earth Liberation Front, responsible for 17 fires set in four states over five years. Ten conspirators have pleaded guilty and been sentenced; four have fled the country; three are awaiting sentencing. Waters, the only one of the accused to have pleaded innocent and therefore the only one to have stood trial, now faces 20 years in prison. …

Prosecutors celebrated the guilty verdict against Waters as a signal victory in the campaign against “eco-terror,” a mission that the U.S. Department of Justice has made the centerpiece of its domestic counterterrorism program. “This cell of eco-terrorists thought they had a ‘right’ to sit in judgment and destroy the hard work of dedicated researchers at the UW and elsewhere,” U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sullivan declared in announcing Waters’ conviction. “Today’s verdict shows that no one is above the law.”

Civil libertarians draw a different moral from the verdict. For them it is evidence of how the Justice Department has exaggerated the threat of eco-sabotage; they see Waters’ story as a disturbing example of the misuse of federal authority and the excessive reach of the American counterterrorism program in the wake of 9/11. As Lauren Regan, director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Ore., remarks: “There’s a question of whether burning property is really the equivalent of flying a plane into a building and killing humans.”

The CLDC asks the wrong question and does so in the wrong context. Of course torching research facilities doesn’t equate to flying planes into buildings and killing 3,000 people. If the law did equate the two, Waters wouldn’t face 20 years in prison– she’d face the death penalty, and have 3,000 life sentences as her only alternative. Despite the vapidity of Regan’s response, the law has enough nuance to handle the different scales of terrorism.

But let’s not make any mistake here. What Waters and her co-conspirators did was terrorism, and should be investigated and prosecuted as such. The ELF and its “elves” want to force change in the nation by violence and force because they cannot get it through legitimate, democratic means. Not only to they want to destroy medical research facilities, homes, car dealerships, and Lord Glorious Hope knows what else, but they want to terrorize the people who would use such facilities into submission to their agendas.

It doesn’t matter what the cause might be. It might be abortion, tax reform, or stopping elderly abuse. When its advocates turn to violence to intimidate people into adopting their positions, then they have crossed the line from free speech to terrorism, and it strikes at the heart of democracy. The government of a free people have the duty to ensure that law-of-the-jungle tactics get stopped and carry huge consequences to the people who use them, in order to deter others from adopting them.

Salon’s Tracy Tullis calls it “alarming” that the federal government used “post-9/11 counterterrorism laws to pursue and prosecute an environmental activist”. Briana Waters stopped being an activist when she traded in picket lines for arson conspiracies, and became precisely the kind of criminal for which these laws were written. If she didn’t want to do 20 years in prison, she should have stuck with the picket signs.