"Terror": …violence (as bombing) committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands"—Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
"Even before his death, his entire life was devoted to animal rights issues... The methods he chose to achieve his ends, however, alienated him from any mainstream opinion. To most, only in the detail was he different from almost any other terrorist."—Journalist Charles Shoebridge, describing animal rights activist Barry Horne, who recently died from a hunger strike in a British jail.
Are you a terrorist? Do you support terrorism?
Of course not, you will probably say. It's not even something you'd have to think about. In fact, you've denounced it a million times since September 11.
But answer the following questions:
- Wouldn't you like to see the cage doors of every mink farm, laying hen battery, and animal research laboratory swung open and billions of animals escape to whatever freedom they could find?
- Would you really mind seeing every McDonald's sign spray painted to make the famous "golden arches" form the first letter of the phrase "meat is murder"?
- How about slaughterhouses? Wouldn't you like to see every one of them leveled, and shrines for the dead animals put in their place?
- Wouldn't you secretly (or not so secretly) root for someone who could make all this happen?
The point here, of course, is that sometimes terrorism doesn't seem so bad if the "terrorist" activities support a cause we deeply believe in. In that case the "right" thing to do may shift, or at least become a bit murky. It's like the old question of whether you would have assassinated Hitler in 1933 if you'd had the opportunity to do so and the knowledge of future events. Would you?
In our society terrorism—at least in the form of illegal destruction of property—is being conducted on a regular basis in support of animal rights causes. A report to Congress several years ago found hundreds of these "terrorist" acts, and there's even a federal law, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992 [ed. note: amended by the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006], that was enacted to prevent them. (Most states have similar laws.)
I've never met anyone who admitted to being an animal rights terrorist. If I did, though, I think I'd like them. For the most part these must be dedicated and brave individuals who have the vision of a better world for animals and humans. They are willing to act on behalf of their passions, and willing to help the suffering and the downtrodden despite the personal risks involved. I have to admire that.
Of course I also think their actions are stupid and wrong.
Terrorism, even for the most noble of causes, was stupid and wrong before September 11, and it's even more stupid and wrong now. Here's why:
- Violence is inherently antithetical to what we stand for. You can't simultaneously condemn violence and practice it. And you can't harm one animal (people) to save another without looking like a hypocrite.
- The ends don't justify the means. Sure, the people who harm animals for pleasure and/or profit promote terror themselves. They do it every day, and on an incomprehensively massive scale. But it is dangerous to say that a little bit of evil perpetrated against them is justified by the greater good it would accomplish. Where do you draw the line? Whose standards do you use?
Just remember, everyone who exploits animals uses the same dubious logic—"the ends justify the means"—to support their actions. We know it's not true for them. It's not true for us either.
- Most of all, violence makes animal rights activists, and their cause, easy targets. People are inherently fearful of new ideas. They'd much rather have an excuse to dismiss an idea outright than go to the trouble of actually educating themselves and formulating a position. Every time an act of violence (or even just something dumb) is committed in the name of animal rights it gives the public the opportunity to dismiss the whole movement and everyone in it—from the Animal Liberation Front to the cat lady next door—as "a bunch of fanatics." Why give them that opportunity?
Of course everything I've said above is doubly true after the hideous events of September 11. There's little tolerance in our society for anything even remotely looking like terrorism, and average folks won't distinguish violence committed in the name of Islamic fundamentalism from violence committed in the name of animal rights (an equally unknown cause). Why should they?
(If you don't believe that people will gladly equate folks who free research animals with folks who hijack planes and fly them into buildings full of people, it's not hard to find hundreds of postings to that effect on Internet bulletin boards. Better yet, look at the mainstream press. In the past few weeks the New York Times, USA Today and the Guardian (UK) (just to name a few) have published articles making exactly that comparison.)
Lest anyone get the wrong idea about my caution against violence and lawlessness, I freely admit that there's lots of gray area here. Lurking in that gray area are many difficult questions that I, for one, can't answer: Is violence okay in pursuit of terrorists? What about that Hitler question? What about civil disobedience against unjust laws?? How do you keep from tearing the door off the cage when it's right in front of you and a helpless animal is staring out???
In our society we have the right of free speech, and the responsibility to exercise it liberally. No one who believes in animal rights, vegetarianism, or related causes should be shy about expressing his or her beliefs. We should make speeches, carry signs, and generally do what we can to get in people's faces and (more importantly) their minds. No one who ventures out onto a public sidewalk or street in America has the right to be sheltered from the ideas of others, no matter how offensive those ideas may be. Thank God (and folks named Jefferson, Adams and Washington) for that. And of course no one has a right to be sheltered from the consequences of their own actions. (If they want to eat chickens, by golly they should have to look the chickens in the eye first!)
But let's refrain from doing things that are dumb, antisocial, and most of all violent. Our causes are too important for us to be summarily dismissed as "wackos," "fanatics," "anti-human," or "terrorists." Why let people who are abusing animals off the hook so easily? Instead, let's be accessible and inviting to the mainstream public. Let's not take ourselves too seriously. And instead of violence let's inundate them with civility, articulate arguments, scientific fact and, most of all, truth.
The animals we want to help deserve no less from us.