William Cottrell, a former Cal Tech graduate student, is back in the news. Mr. Cottrell, you may remember, is the fellow who was busted for torching and otherwise vandalizing 125 SUV's last year, apparently acting on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). I'm out on a limb, having speculated that some of the same social factors that contributed to American Taliban John Walker Lindh following his ill-fated star similarly influenced Mr. Cottrell to follow his (only time will tell if I was right).
But more to the point ... I'm also on record as saying that part of the strategy of groups like the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) and ELF is to inflame passions, point out targets and entice unknown "useful idiots" to do the actual violent deed:
. . . The most effective tactics are to target 3rd parties - people and organizations who the primary target depends on for survival, like share holders and suppliers. To put pressure on these 3rd parties, the terrorists publish public information on the web and in flyers, combining information and motivation in bits and pieces. Individually, each element is innocuous - but in combination they may incite anonymous true believers to violence against a specific target (CEO Smith), or against a class of targets (people working at Huntingdon Life Science). I likened such tactics to chemical explosives: by themselves, the individual chemicals are easily and legally obtained, and not dangerous. It is only when they are combined in proper measure that they become lethal.
David Martosko (of the Center For Consumer Freedom) is right when he says (of extremist Jerry Vlasak): 'He's not making bombs, but he is making bombers.' So it is with those who design and post the extremist websites.
It seems to me that Mr. Cottrell is exactly the kind of person at whom ALF, ELF, SHAC and similar such groups aim their website propaganda: somebody who - for whatever reason - is dissatisfied by the ideological and religious options offered by conventional institutions, and is seeking a spirituality that is something more uplifting (or at least different) than what he sees those institutions offering.
Some of these lost souls - I would argue that Mr. Cottrell is one of them - find in the websites a spiritual raison d'être. A person entering that spiritual zone, who responds to the website's call to arms, and turns for guidance to a set of instructions outlining which evil individual, group or entity should be targeted, and instructions on what techniques to use against the target, is an explosive mixture. In essence, the websites are trolling for whoever they can get, and in this case Mr. Cottrell took the bait - dare I say - hook, line and sinker. Or so I would argue.
I don't have a clue how many useful idiots like Mr. Cottrell there are, but there really don't need to be too many to serve the ends of the extremists: to sow fear by coercion, intimidation, vandalism and assault, which serves the tactical purpose of influencing how companies do business, and the propaganda purpose of keeping "the cause" in the public's mind's eye.
The beauty for the people running the website and writing its rhetoric, of course, is that they're well distanced from the acts of Mr. Cottrell and any other useful idiots that rise to their bait: Mr. Cottrell will serve hard time, they'll remain free to recruit more useful idiots.
In any event, his defense team received bad news:
LOS ANGELES -- A federal judge Monday refused to strike the most serious charge against William Cottrell, the Caltech grad student accused of torching and vandalizing more than 125 sport utility vehicles last year. Judge Gary Klausner rejected defense arguments that the charge is unwarranted and excessive. Cottrell is accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail into an SUV in Monrovia, which, as charged, carries a minimum sentence of 30 years in prison.
"This is aggravated vandalism,' said defense attorney Marvin Rudnick, who maintains Cottrell's innocence. "Murdering a Hummer does not deserve 30 years.'
Cottrell remains in federal custody. He has been held without bail since March, when he was arrested at his girlfriend's Pasadena home.
[ . . . ]
Prosecutors claim Cottrell accepted responsibility for the SUV fires in a series of anonymous e-mails to the Los Angeles Times, which were traced back to his Caltech account. Many of the SUVs were scrawled with the letters "ELF,' which stands for Earth Liberation Front.
He faces nine counts, including arson, conspiracy and using an incendiary device the Molotov cocktail during a "crime of violence.'
Rudnick and defense attorney Michael Mayock argued that the last charge, which was used against "American Taliban' John Walker Lindh, was improper on several grounds.
They claimed the government's use of the "interstate commerce' clause of the Constitution to federalize what would otherwise have been a state case was unwarranted.
They argued that the charge duplicated elements of the other charges.
Prosecutor Beverly Reid-O'Connell countered, in an opposition brief, that the charge has been successfully used against many defendants who have thrown Molotov cocktails.
After hearing brief arguments Monday, Klausner agreed the charge was justified.
Before the hearing, Rudnick gave the motion little chance of succeeding, but said he was most interested in "preserving the issues' for a potential appeal.
Outside court, Rudnick suggested that the government was attempting to pressure Cottrell to identify his alleged co-conspirators.
There was a time in my life when I believed that the probability of a (potential) criminal being caught served as a much bigger deterrent to crime than did the length of a convicted person's sentence. (If the odds are 100% that a thief will be caught and spend 1 year in jail, there will be less theft than if the odds of being caught are 25% with the guilty serving 15 years in jail).
I still think the likelihood of getting caught can be a deterrent. But only if the penalty is a good stiff one, one that will deter like minded individuals from committing similar crimes.
I wouldn't be at all adverse to seeing Mr. Cottrell go away for a very long time, as an example, for the sake of deterrence.
Now, it is true, as Mr. Cottrell's lawyer argues, that torching cars isn't the same as killing humans. But it's not like torching cars doesn't carry with it a uniquely dangerous combination of threats to human life and property. Firemen and police respond to fires set by arsonists, which means they drive with sirens and lights on, running red lights and forcing uninvolved drivers to respond to emergency vehicles in unpredictable and dangerous ways. Indeed, any driver knows what it's like to have an emergency vehicle come into view: some drivers stop, some speed up, some slow down, some pull over without looking or signaling and some (many) look around to see if they can locate the siren. And, of course, once on the scene, emergency responders risk their lives merely by fighting the fire and by entering buildings looking to save people who might not even be there.
I'd like see Mr. Cottrell serve a long time - and 30 years sounds about right. It might give others of like mind something to ponder before they themselves volunteer to become "useful idiots."
UPDATE: An AC reader wrote the following, and gave me permission to post it in its entirety, with the understanding that I'd respond to it:
Your email (sic) concerning William Cottrell is interesting but you, like the court system, do not make much sense in punishment. You have stated, "I'd like see Mr. Cottrell serve a long time - and 30 years sounds about right." This seems very excessive. Wouldn't you think some type of rehabilitation would be better for someone like William.
With respect, we are talking about a presumptive arsonist. The evidence I've read suggests that Mr. Cottrell willfully, deliberately and with coldly-calculated plans committed an act that easily could have injured, maimed or killed any number of people - innocent drivers scrambling to avoid emergency vehicles, pedestrians who might have been struck by emergency vehicles or the cars attempting to clear a way for those vehicles, and the emergency responders themselves when they had to fight the conflagration Mr. Cottrell is accused of creating.
For the time being, I presume Mr. Cottrell's innocence. But if he is found guilty, a 30 year sentence might or might not be rehabilitating, but it would certainly keep him from performing similar acts for quite a long time - and I'm more concerned about him paying a steep price for his crime, protecting others from him, and having him serve as an example than in seeing to his rehabilitation. Just my opinion - others may differ.
My feeling is that there are thousands of people out there who sympathize with the goals of AR, who are exposed to the same incendiary rhetoric and are urged to give their all for the animals, through direct action if necessary. Most of these people resist the sirens Mr. Cottrell chose to obey, so it is on Mr. Cottrell that he purposely chose the less traveled violent path.
Finally, I think others contemplating a career as useful idiots might benefit from Mr. Cottrell's example, should he be convicted. Were they then to meditate upon his fate before they made a similarly wrongheaded decision, they could avoid both jail-time and the question of rehabilitation altogether.
Putting him in jail with a bunch of other people where he could spread his ideals (if these are his ideals) does not seem very logical to me. Not all of the people in there are serving 30 years and I would guess that there is a higher percentage of "useful idiots" in there than on the outside.
Perhaps. But in my opinion, the vast majority of criminals are meat-eating, violence-prone, egocentric materialists who are more committed to their own self-interests than they could ever be to some loopy, incoherent ideology that equates the value of laboratory rats with their own value as human beings. If Mr. Cottrell ends up serving time, he might convert some of his fellow inmates to the AR religion, but I think that's a remote possibility. But even if that were likely, if he's convicted, I still think he should serve a full 30 years for the reasons listed above.
I'd just like to see how you would respond if you had a 23 year old that was in this situation.
There's a reason why judges, working within the formal codes of a legal system, sentence the guilty, and the parents of the convicted do not: objectivity, consistency and fairness (at least in theory).
I'm sure you would push to make an example out of him where he is getting the same amount of time as a premeditated murderer would get.
I think most people who are found guilty of premeditated murder should get at least life in prison with no chance of parole (I can imagine exceptions). But the fact that premeditated murder might generally be under-punished is not a strong reason to under-punish arson.
UPDATE: In the "Update" above, I inadvertently conflated Animal Rights and Eco-extremists in describing what Mr. Cottrell might accomplish in the way of conversions to the faith (it would be Eco-faith, not AR-faith) if convicted. Mr. Cottrell is not, as far as I know, an Animal Rights activist. My Bad.
But the point - that the inmate population would be more interested in material matters than radical eco-ideology - stands. In short, I'd bet that the vast majority of prisoners would be much more interested in possessing an SUV (legally or illegally ... ) than in torching them in acts of ideological symbolism.
My thanks to a reader (Cxxxx - a polite but unsympathetic reader) for correcting me on this point.