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Hager's Crossing arsons put public and rule of law at risk

November 23, 2005

In an e-mail sent to The Herald-Mail, someone identifying themselves as a member of an environmental terrorist group claimed to have set four fires in a housing development under construction.

The group - Earth Liberation Front (ELF) - is said to be loosely organized, with no central command structure.

But whether the four fires set in Hager's Crossing are the work of one person or an organization, this is not the proper way to make a point about the loss of fields and forests to development.

The right way is to do research, read development filings and attend hearings of the local planning commission.

If there is no objection to developments at such meetings, then they are more likely to be approved.

But if citizens who oppose development make intelligent arguments, they can give planning board members reasons to think twice about approvals.

And even if they don't prevail before the planning board, court appeals can delay construction for months. That would truly affect the bottom line, the stated purpose of the e-mail author identifying themselves as an ELF representative.

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Burning unoccupied homes is a start down a dangerous road. Let's assume that the arson had its intended effect and construction was stopped or delayed. If suspects were identified, would the people losing hours on the job or invested money be justified in burning down their homes?

Of course not. If the police had sufficient evidence, the suspects would be arrested, provided with a lawyer if they couldn't afford one and given a trial.

If they chose not to have a judge hear their case, they could opt to have their fate decided by a jury of 12 citizens.

This is the rule of law. It keeps the U.S. from descending into the chaos that has marked the Balkan states in eastern Europe and some South American countries, where political opponents "disappear" and are never heard form again.

Just because no one was hurt in the Hager's Crossing fires doesn't mean that there has been no damage.

Someone, for reasons known only to them, has decided that the rules we've agreed to live by don't apply to them and that their cause is so important that it justifies breaking those rules.

That's a dangerous way of thinking. If it's not challenged, who will be the next to decide that their ideas are so important that the rest of us just don't matter?

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