How to Blow Up A Pipeline: Do the Actions of Climate Activists Qualify as a form of Self Defence?
The movie How to Blow Up A Pipeline is about climate activism taken to an extreme. The movie features characters living in a future where the human impact on the environment is massive. At one point, the young characters talk about living as children with the impacts of being exposed to acid rain. The air of the planet and nature as we know it is gone and the movie takes place in a future Earth where the land is beginning to look like the surface of Mars. Without trees. Without life. And with humans, the only ones left.
The movie uses this dystopia backdrop to tell a story about a group of young people tired of their world as is and looking to take action. Together they plot out and execute a plan, as the title of the movie makes apparent, to blow up a pipeline used to transport oil. The hope is that the price of oil will shift as a result of the attack. Finally, there will be a political incentive to move away from sources of energy that damage the planet. While doing this, one of the main characters brings along an assumption for their actions.
Knowing that she will be caught, Theo talks about the justification for their actions through self-defence. She claims that when they are caught, the protagonists of the story will be able to use self-defence to justify their actions in court. The decision of the court, according to Theo, will be in favour of the eco-terrorists who acted to prevent their planet being destroyed further with the use of fossil fuels. The movie concludes before showing the audience what the authorities will make of the actions of the eco-terrorists. Is Theo right or wrong to think that the groups actions of blowing up the pipeline will qualify as justified as they were done out of necessity and in self defence?
How has Self-Defence Been Used by Someone Accused of a Serious Crime?
Self-defence is a concept traditionally understood in legal terms of one person coming to the aid of another or defending themselves against someone attacking them. Section 3 of the Criminal Laws Act 1967 in the United Kingdom for instance states that “a person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of a crime”. The Criminal Code of the United States states something similar, talking about the attacked having the “privilege” to defend themselves with use of reasonable force and against an imminent attack or unlawful action.
Self-defence does not mean however that one is justified in standing their ground in a fight where they have routes of escape for instance or where the force they choose to use escalates the confrontation. In the UK case of R v Rose in 1884, a young man shot dead his father as he believed that it was the only way to protect his mother from similar harm. In that instance, the court agreed, and the charge of murder was put to one side. In the United States, in the Supreme Court case of Bad Elk v United States, an off duty police officer was given a new trial having shot an on-duty police officer who was arresting him illegally. This case shows what is sometimes called imperfect self defence where the charge of murder is turned into the lower charge of manslaughter through self defence.
A careful read of different judgments involving self-defence reveals that those using it have to fit certain criteria. They cannot, for instance, use force against someone they think without reason will attack them or start a conflict with someone in self defence. If I attack you first with a knife, I cannot claim self defence unless it can be shown you did something to think you also had a knife or my life was in some way imminently in danger. It is clear that the way self defence is described that there are limitations on how it can be used. Having said that, this has not stopped people using the defence creatively.
Facing Charges of Whistleblowing
In 2003 a linguist and translator working for the intelligence agency the GCSB in the United Kingdom read an email that talked about doing something illegal. The email talked about spying on members of the United Nations Security Council to find out how they would vote ahead of time on the invasion of Iraq. The linguist, Katherine Gunn, decided to share the email with the press. When it was finally revealed to the public and Katherine discovered to be the source of the leaked email, Katherine faced charges of breaking the Official Secrets Act.
The events of this, including the legal battle that followed, are portrayed in the 2019 movie Official Secrets with Keira Knightley playing Katherine. In that movie, as in real life, Katherine used self defence against charges under the Official Secrets Act. Her lawyer focused on the actions of the Prime Minister, and whether he had been advised about the war in Iraq being illegal. It turns out that there was advice suggesting that a UK and US invasion of Iraq in 2003 would be illegal, and Katherine’s lawyers used that to support a case that Katherine did what she did in defence of those who would be harmed from the United Kingdom being involved in an illegal war.
Rather than allow that to go ahead, the case was dropped against Katherine and her trial brought to a swift halt. Katherine was let free as the United Kingdom did not want to have to show that their war was legal knowing in fact that it was not. A lot of attention focused on the trail but also the defence used by Katherine. The United Kingdom did not want to embarass itself and throw itself in front of further public criticism. This ultimately suggests that while self defence can deter the state from charging someone accused of a serious crime, it only worked in getting the case dropped.
Facing Charges of Destroying Property
In 2013, three men proceeded to enter a facility in New Zealand used to collect signals as part of intelligence gathering. New Zealand is part of the spying network agreement called Five Eyes and the three men, knowing the facility was connected to spying activity with the United States, proceeded to damage parts of the facility. When the case went to court, the three accused used self defence and necessity to claim that what they did they did to prevent people in Iraq being killed as part of that illegal war. The judge had to decide whether based on the evidence the actions of the accused did really fit self defence or whether that was a stretch of the imagination.
Ultimately, on appeal, the court did not find in favour of the accused. Self defence and necessity were seen as too far of a stretch to qualify. The facts of the case, as they were reported by media at the time, indicate instead that the court felt that the actions of the accused were more consistent with a form of protest. They also did what they did not knowing of immediate danger to a specific person nor of how the facility in New Zealand was linked to actions happening in Iraq illegal or not. The men were as a result found guilty of trespassing and damaging property.
One of the main concerns put forward by the judge was that necessity can too easily become simply a mask for anarchy. Those with concerns about the actions of the state can pursue those concerns through legal forms of protest. They can start movements. They can petition lawmakers. As a result, necessity used by the accused was too much of a stretch because they had other ways forward open to them. As far as the court was concerned, their actions were not justified. While New Zealand is a long way from the southern United States where the events of How to Blow Up a Pipeline take place in the future, they do serve as an indication of the limits of self defence particularly when it comes to destroying property.
What Might the Judge Decide?
Judges cannot make any decision they would like to make. Ultimately, they have to use the decisions of the court in the past to justify the decision they are making. Anyone who takes the time to read a court judgment will quickly realize how thorough judges are with their decisions, particularly in legal systems like the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Any decision made by a judge can be used to persuade the court down the line. The latin phrase for this is called spare decisis but the phrase precedent is also used.
If we assume that something similar to the Katherine Gunn case and the spy facility trespassing case had occurred in the United States and the court ruled the same then we can go some way towards asking whether self defence will stand up in court for Theo. Just as in R v Rose, the response has to be in portion to the threat posed. While the use of fossil fuels can be shown to be a direct contributor to climate charge, it is not clear that transporting the oil around is directly linked to climate change by itself. While the use of the oil is the transporting of it is different. This is something that the court might have a problem with when it comes to Theo claiming self defence. The accused needs to establish their action were in portion to the peril involved from that particular pipeline and that particular oil company.
The problem with eco-terrorists taking matters into their own hands is that their damage to the pipeline may not be linked to preventing further destruction to the environment like they necessarily think. The oil being transported in the pipeline could be used as part of making devices like solar panels and windmills that would increase the portion of energy use that is coming from renewable sources. We don’t see the characters check any of this or know it for certain but it may be something that poses a problem for their claims that they did what they did to stop the company harming the environment. There is a clear problem here.
Just as it was a problem for the men who damaged a signal intelligence facility, so too is showing their actions were necessary for the eco-terrorists as they are portrayed in the movie How to Blow Up a Pipeline. When the justification of self defence is explored thoroughly is quicky falls apart. But one of the biggest problems for the use of self defence and necessity is that the characters each have different motivations for being involved in blowing up the pipeline. One character is motivated more by revenge against the oil company that stole his land then anything to do with the climate crisis. If they all end up in court together, then their different motivations coming to light in court would make arguing for necessity and self defence inconsistent with the facts of the case. It would really not be good for Theo’s original claims of how things will play out in court.
Future Lawmakers and the Court Not Ruling in Favour of Illegal Actions
While things do not look good for Theo and the group of eco-terrorists who work with her to blow up the pipeline, there may be a glimmer of hope for their use of self-defence and necessity. The group are focused on attacking the pipeline because of the damage it is causing to the environment. Fossil fuels have changed the atmosphere of the planet and a hot planet is a reality for the occupants of Earth. Trees are dead. Animals too. And all this may have meant lawmakers in the United States had finally come around to something like making the use of fossil fuels illegal or making actions linked to climate change against the law – including transporting oil.
One important twist would come out of this step having been made by the lawmakers of the future. Applying the 1775 decision of Holman v Johnson, the judge stated that “No court will lend its aid to a man who founds his cause of actions upon an immoral or an illegal act”. Applying the Latin phrase ex turpi causa which translates to: no action from the court in favour of those who have done something illegal. Just as a robber cannot sue the owner of the house he robs because the floor was slippery and he fell, so too can those who act illegally not seek assistance from the court with regard to their illegal actions.
If using oil and fossil fuels happens to be illegal in the future when Theo and her accomplices blow up a pipeline then ex turpi causa could be a defence they could use should they be taken to court for their actions. The court cannot aid a commercial pollutor through its decision to prosecute eco-terrorists. If the use of the pipeline was illegal and posed a threat to the environment and the survival of those in the United States like Theo, then this would change things. While the defence hinges on the pipeline being illegal, this does make an argument of self defence stronger but not certain to stand up in court. The fact that Theo and others did acts of terrorism planning on using self defence may also pose a problem for them down the line. If there is one thing that judges don’t like it is potential reoffenders.
While Theo and her court battle may well come with a number of twists and turns that did not play out in the film, it is worth noting the protagonists are only left depicted as the protagonists because the events are seen through their lens. Their focus on the issue of how big companies are damaging the planet in the film keeps the audience fixed on the characters being justified in their attack on the pipeline. A judge may come to a different conclusion when factoring in the choices open to the characters and if destroying a pipeline is the only way for them to get their message across. Based on the cases covered above, the claims of self defence in the movie are extremely questionable. Better to stick to legal forms of activism than assume technical legal concepts like self defence will always provide a way out.
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