Two hundred years ago this week Lord Byron made an angry maiden speech in the House of Lords. The target of his ire was the Frame Breaking Act, which gave the government the right to put a noose round a man's neck if he damaged commercial property.
The United States could well do with a Byron now in its upper house, as the documentary If A Tree Falls, shown the other day on BBC4 shows. The film tells the story of the Earth Liberation Front and in particular Daniel McGowan, who faced life, plus three centuries or so, for arson attacks on environmental targets in which nobody was harmed.
McGowan seems a thoughtful sort of chap with a genuine passion for the trees, and you suspect he committed his crimes more in Thoreau than in anger.
He was radicalised in the Earth First! actions of the 1990s in Oregan, including the Cascadia Free State protests.
These actions were the US parallel of our own Road Protest Movement except that whilst we camped in 70 foot Oak Trees within sight of suburban houses, they camped in 700 year old Redwoods in the middle of nowhere. The key difference though was when you locked on in this country the authorities spent an hour chiseling you out, in the States they rubbed pepper spray in your eyes until you begged for mercy.
After being tear gassed in the Battle of Seattle McGowan and some other Earth First! radicals decided to form their own Earth Liberation Front cell to move beyond the hippy sit down protests and into the dubious realm of arson attacks.
It took the police some time to track them down, by which time they'd all moved on and settled down, and the best tip anyone trying anything similar can take from the story is; if you want your secret cell to stay secret a heroin addict with a large pentagram tattooed on his head is not the best choice of co-conspirator.
For activists, a lot can be learnt from the film, from the dangers of taking the law into your own hands to the radicalising power of a policeman's truncheon.
The success of the ELF shows how difficult it is for the authorities to stop small cells of activists. However it also shows the danger of such an approach, as the group torched what they thought was a nursery for GM trees only to find out afterwards it had been sold on to someone else. A broader based group would have found this out.
Arson is an uncontrolled force, as a separate cell found out when a fire meant to destroy a greenhouse of GM crops took out the university library as well.
But the danger wasn't just to innocent bystander's property, the actions of the elves ultimately wiped out the organisations the activists had themselves sprung from. The attacks split the activist community in Eugene and ultimate the ELF themselves, and suddenly an effective protest organisation was no more. Solidarity was eventually in pretty short supply in Oregan.
Finally, to many people, the attacks in many ways ended up justifying the crackdown that had ended the peaceful protests. When the police send someone like Mark Kennedy to infiltrate protesters it is in no small part because they want intelligence on those who may go on to form similar cells.
However history may end up judging McGowan and the ELF a lot less harshly than his peers. Malcolm X was more intolerant and less effective and the Suffragettes more violent and the Luddites outdid both in their time.
The question future generations may well ask is not why did they go so far, but why did the rest of us do so little?
Update On 11 December, 2012, McGowan was released to a halfway house in New York City