Extortion Doesn't Pay, For Once

July 17, 1995|By PHILIP TERZIAN

Washington -- Few events in the news have pleased me as much as the French seizure of the Greenpeace vessel, Rainbow Warrior II, in the waters off Mururoa atoll, in the South Pacific.

The fact that the deed was done on the 10th anniversary of the French destruction of the Rainbow Warrior I -- a coincidence that horrified television correspondents, leading to innumerable candle-light vigils -- made it all the more pleasurable.

The French have a certain way of doing things, to be sure. As a democratic ally, France can be (and often is) insufferable: contrarian, self-righteous, jealous of its hard-won national prerogatives. But when it comes to the test -- the U-2 affair, the Pershing II deployment, the Persian Gulf War -- the French are on the ground, standing right beside you.

It is difficult to imagine, say, the British or the Germans doing to the Rainbow Warrior II what nearly every European government would like to do. But the French didn't hesitate for a moment. And, let us hope, they will hold their ground.

There is every good reason to be thankful for France, and its disdain for Greenpeace, the environmental organization that delights in well-publicized acts of vandalism, and expends its most violent energies in attacking less radical environmental organizations.

The cabal that administers Greenpeace knows a dirty little secret: Governments, and especially corporations, are reluctant to swat flies, especially when the swatting might yield a little bloodstain.

Recently, when Royal Dutch Shell announced plans to dismantle a redundant oil rig in the North Atlantic, Greenpeace, citing spurious concerns about pollution, set to work disrupting the bureaucratic process, sabotaging the rig, marching and chaining members to various fences.

Letter bombs arrived at Shell gas stations throughout Europe. They weren't mailed by Greenpeace, of course. But in the aftermath of Oklahoma City, we might say that Greenpeace supplied the rationale.

Shell, which had initially chosen to ignore its tormentor, soon found itself the victim of a public-relations campaign. A compliant press not only propagated Greenpeace's assertion that disassembling the rig would poison the sea (no evidence exists that such a thing would happen) but cast the media-savvy Greenpeace in the role of underdog.

Of course, if anyone held the upper hand in this instance, it was Greenpeace: Not only was it allied with the press and Shell's detractors, it knew that Shell would never respond to Greenpeace in kind. Extortion pays, even in the world of environmental activism, and Shell chose to capitulate.

Yet France did not capitulate.

Now, one might argue (as the Australians and New Zealanders are doing) that ramming and boarding the Rainbow Warrior II, and hauling it into port, is a disproportionate action: France has far more commandos, and a far bigger navy, than does Greenpeace.

But it is that very disparity in size that gives Greenpeace its advantage. After all, if it is ''disproportionate'' to intercept a vessel that has pointedly violated territorial waters, and that is plainly intent on subverting French sovereignty, what is the alternative?

Greenpeace does not believe in diplomacy, or in talking things over in the conference room; it believes in direct action. And once any government is sufficiently intimidated -- fearful that punishment might look ''disproportionate'' -- it has lost the struggle, and Greenpeace has won.

France, to its credit, understands the stakes.

The issue in the North Atlantic was not the dismantling of one Shell oil rig; it was democratic capitalism. For Greenpeace is not just opposed to pollution per se: It is opposed to modern technology, and the democratic governments and corporate institutions that encourage technology to enhance modern life for the dreaded bourgeoisie.

In the South Pacific, Greenpeace does not just object to the resumption of underground nuclear tests -- which the French have conducted, off and on, for four decades with no ill effects. What Greenpeace objects to is the notion of weaponry defending the peace, of democratic governments promoting free enterprise, of the duly elected government of France choosing to fortify its citizens from attack.

Greenpeace has called the French seizure of its ship ''an outrage against peaceful protest and world opinion.'' On the matter of world opinion, that remains to be seen.

But peaceful protest?

There is nothing peaceful in Greenpeace's tactics on the high seas, in principle or practice: Only the intention of kicking some shins, throwing sand in the works, breaching security and winning on TV those battles it has consistently lost at the ballot box.

Philip Terzian is the associate editor of the Providence Journal.

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