MEMBERS OF THE Earth Liberation Front destroyed four houses under construction outside San Diego in September. The arsonists left a message: "Development = Destruction. Stop raping nature. The ELFs are angry."
These homegrown terrorists wanted to stop urban sprawl by any means. They had a simple message, a simple goal and simple minds. Somehow, they had concluded that development is a form of "raping nature."
In America, we assume we are reasonable people - well-rounded folks who light up at the words tolerance, diversity and acceptance.
A 2002 Gallup poll conducted in nine Islamic countries found that 61 percent of those surveyed thought that Muslims had nothing to do with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But in America, we have a solid grasp of reality and are not in danger of holding extremist views. Right?
Unfortunately, fringe groups such as the ELF are not the only ones indoctrinated with outlandish opinions. There is a real danger for Americans - and especially easily energized youth - to hear just one side of an issue, get wrapped up in a cause and take rash action.
Even in former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, which has rallied many young voters, there is a disturbing sprinkle of some far-fetched ideas.
For example, on National Public Radio in December, Dr. Dean explained why he thought President Bush "suppressed" parts of the 9/11 report: "There are many theories about it. The most interesting theory that I've heard so far - which is nothing more than a theory, it can't be proved - is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis. Now who knows what the real situation is?"
When asked on Fox News a week later about his comments, Dr. Dean said of the conspiracy theory: "No, I don't believe that. I can't imagine the president of the United States doing that. But we don't know, and it'd be a nice thing to know."
Here is a ridiculous theory blatantly arguing that Mr. Bush had foreknowledge of the terrorist attacks. Instead of doing what any normal person would do and dismiss the theory as incredulous, Dr. Dean brings up the theory on national radio and dabbles with its possibilities on national television.
"We don't know," Dr. Dean says. We don't?
People of my generation (Gen Y) eat up these theories with a political appetite that savors conspiracies substantiating their modes of thinking. On university campuses, for example, it's easy for a certain set of opinions to circulate and become the norm. Suddenly, Dr. Dean's theories don't seem so incredible.
It's important, however, not to become mired in a pit of similar opinions that simply reinforce a misdirected view of reality. And even more critical, we need to be wary of those who wish to indoctrinate today's youths.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has funded the ELF in the past, has launched a campaign to convince children that animals should essentially have the same rights as humans and that the meat industry is to be despised.
Most recently, the group has started distributing to children a graphic flier that shows a knife-wielding woman stabbing a rabbit. The leaflet reads, "Your mommy kills animals!"
Also, PETA's kids' Web site asks, "Does the thought of chowing down on one of your friends give you the creeps? How about eating something that may as well have been dunked in the toilet? Well, this is the place for you! This site is for kids who care about animals and don't want to eat them."
It's bad enough that many talk-show junkies and Noam Chomsky groupies live in their own worlds fashioned by a steady stream of echoing messages. But these efforts to propagandize children will only propagate more Dean-like "theories."
Extremists across the spectrum and everyone in between need to recognize the effects of the "group think" phenomenon - where everyone around you thinks the same, and the opposition is characterized as a despicable group ("liberals," "conservatives," fill-in-the-blank "fundamentalists").
At no other time in history have we had access to such a variety of media. Unfortunately, instead of taking advantage of this, my peers tend to read only The Nation or to listen to only Rush Limbaugh. The exchange and clash of ideas is good only if there's an actual exchange of ideas.
It's time to dispose of our partisan mindsets and debate an issue or two while considering the possibility that the other side might be right - or at least not as wrong as we originally thought.
A steady dose of reality and debate may be healthier than accepting a convenient delusion.
Chris Collins, 20, is a sophomore at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash.