Showtrials and Scarecrows: 'Ecoterrorism' and the War on Dissent
"We are committed to working with our partners to detect, disrupt, and dismantle these movements, and to bring to justice those who commit crime in the name of animal or environmental rights."
On May 18 2005, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPWC) met to discuss the burning topic of "ecoterrorism." This hearing was prompted by the fact that direct action groups such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) are increasingly active and effective in their efforts to attack the property and profits of corporations who exploit animals and the earth. Without harming individuals, the ALF and ELF have inflicted millions of dollars of property damage on animal and earth exploitation industries, whereas the aboveground organization SHAC poses an even greater economic threat to corporate profits through its ability to impede the global pharmaceutical-biotechnology research complex that relies heavily on animal experimentation. The Committee assembled also to discuss the alleged relations between the illegal underground activities of the ALF and ELF and legal aboveground organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). It met, in other words, as one offensive in the overall war waged by the corporate-state complex on any and all facets of resistance to its pogrom on the natural world, whether these forces operate through illegal or legal means, with Molotov cocktails or mass mailing campaigns.
John Lewis, Deputy Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Dr. David Skorton, President of the University of Iowa, and David Martosko, director of research for the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) were among the "witnesses" called to advise the Committee on the growing dangers of "extremism" in the animal and environmental activist movements. I myself was "invited" to "submit" to an interview by the Committee—coercive requests they punitively forwarded to the President of my university and to the entire University of Texas Board of Regents—but I impolitely declined. Repeatedly. (1)
With some irony, I listened to the live broadcast of the hearings from an Internet cafe in Prague, the city that spawned Franz Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmare visions. Expecting to be a nodal object rather than featured subject of the digital transmission, I was astounded to hear myself demonized as a champion of the "terrorist" actions of the ALF and accused of using my academic position to recruit students into the criminal underground. Suddenly, McCarthyism—persecutorial spectacles, political lynching, character assassination, and "naming names"—hit home in a sickeningly concrete manner.
"Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy."
"It is time to take a look at the culture and climate of support for criminally based activism like ELF and ALF and do something about it."
Prague has nothing on the US when it comes to the "Kafkaesque," for, tragically, within the dark reign of Bush II, our nation has reverted to the witch hunts of the 1950s. Once again, the U-SS-A is in the frenzied throes of McCarthyism. The chilling atmosphere of the House Un-American Activities Committee (where citizens who expressed or were alleged to express dissenting or liberal views were vilified as "communists") has been revived in the Environment and Public Works Committee. Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) presides in place of Senator Joseph McCarthy, The bogeyman of "communism" has become that of "terrorism." The Red Scare has morphed into a "Green Scare" where bands of radical environmental and animal rights activists, allegedly propped up by mainstream "front groups, are alleged to be the main threats to homeland security.
Throughout the spectacle, Agent Inhofe led the way. Inhofe has the proper credentials for the job, with a long record of zealous opposition to environmental causes. He opened with a bumbling, mumbling monologue as frightening as it was tedious. Throughout the hearing, Inhofe emphasized two chilling points. First, he assured all good Americans, no doubt lying awake at night in fear of an ALF strike on their homes and children, that the "investigation" is ongoing. Like Bush’s "war on terror," Inhofe’s war on dissent has no end in sight, draws on unlimited (taxpayer) resources, deploys an unqualified and illegitimate exercise of power, and has zero accountability to citizens or to the truth. Second, Inhofe’s fervent goal is to destroy not only the illegal underground forces of the ALF and ELF, but also their aboveground supporters.
By "supporters" Inhofe means those who aid the underground in any way—whether through economic, financial, or legal assistance, or even through "rhetorical support." "As with any other criminal enterprise," Inhofe said during the hearing, "we can not allow individuals and organizations to, in effect, aid and abet criminal behavior or provide comfort to them after the fact." According to Inhofe there is "a growing network of support for extremists like ELF and ALF," and he singled out PETA for giving financial support to both groups, along with yours truly for lending a rhetorical hand. Clearly perturbed that both Ingrid Newkirk, President of PETA, and myself refused to dignify the show trial with our appearance, Inhofe threatened to subpoena both of us to star in a future episode.
FBI Deputy Assistant Director John Lewis made clear the institution’s intentions to destroy the animal rights and environmental direct action movements. While ignoring the real threats of violence that stem from right-wing hate groups, he ludicrously boasted of the resources the FBI has committed in its priority war on ecoterrorism: "Currently, 35 FBI offices have over 150 pending investigations associated with animal rights/eco-terrorist activities." In lockstep with animal exploitation industries, Lewis complained that existing laws against animal rights activists—such as the 1992 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act—are inadequate to stop groups like SHAC who are legally savvy and know how to play hardball politics in the Age of the Internet. As Lewis told the Committee:
On the legislative front, we are interested in working with you to examine federal criminal statutes, specifically 18 USC 43, ‘Animal Enterprise Terrorism.’ The statute provides a framework for the prosecution of animal rights extremists, but in practice, it does not cover many of the criminal acts that extremists have committed. Additionally, the statute only applies to criminal acts committed by animal rights extremists, but does not address criminal activity related to eco-terrorism. Therefore, the existing statutes may need refinements to make them more applicable to current animal rights/eco-extremist actions and to give law enforcement more effective means to bring criminals to justice.
Martosko of the CCF took the State reaction to direct action militancy a quantum leap further in his cunning conflation of underground and aboveground organizations, and his call for a blitzkrieg on any form of dissent against the industries he represents, including not only PETA, but also HSUS:
Mr. Chairman, I urge this Committee to fully investigate the connections between individuals who commit crimes in the name of the ALF, ELF, or similar phantom groups, and the above-ground individuals and organizations that give them aid and comfort. I would also urge members of this Committee to prevail upon their colleagues to re-examine the tax-exempt status of groups that have helped to fund—directly or indirectly-- these domestic terrorists …. HSUS, PETA, and PETA’s quasi-medical affiliate, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), are troubling examples of animal-rights charities which have connections to their movement’s militant underbelly. In some cases, the line between the direct-action underground and more `mainstream’ protest groups is quite blurry.
This is paranoiac, ghost-chasing, persecutorial McCarthyism at its best/worst, based on a McCarthyesque illogic of guilt-by-association. In perfect McCarthyesque form, Matosko collapses all distinctions, sees evil and conspiracy schemes everywhere, demonizes all forms of dissent, and recklessly hurls false and slanderous charges against individuals and organizations, all the while promoting a fundamentalist lassie-faire policy that demands industries the right to operate without government regulation. The sad but predictable response of some mainstream animal advocacy and environmental organizations was to dance to the tune of the State. They scrambled to send the Senate Committee letters that repudiate all acts of "violence," including those committed in the name of animal and environmental advocacy, while saying nothing against McCarthyesque tactics themselves.
Using factual fragments taken out of context; misrepresented, twisted, and distorted to suit his agenda; Martosko mounts a hysterical attack against PETA, HSUS, and me. Using McCarthyesque logic of guilt-by-association, for example, he takes the fact that PETA gave thousands of dollars for ALF activist Rodney Coronado’s legal defense and transmogrifies it into the ALF-ization of PETA. The fact that HSUS currently employs a former ALF supporter (who now renounces their tactics) becomes evidence that HSUS is really a terrorist outfit, rather than, in truth, a leading opponent of direct action from within the animal advocacy movement.
I can best destroy the credibility of Martosko by exposing the outrageous lies he spewed about me, slanderous fictions enthusiastically and uncritically swallowed whole by Inhofe. On live TV, before powerful people in Congress and the FBI, Martosko stated that: "Dr. Best is at the epicenter … of the organizational aspects of what the ALF is doing. Dr. Best is part cheerleader, part recruiter. He uses his classroom freely and openly to indoctrinate adolescents with ambitions and simultaneously praises the ALF and ELF … He is a conduit for terrorism to the mainstream." When asked by Inhofe about my alleged influence in the ALF, Martosko smugly replied, "He closes the deal, he seals the deal." When asked by Inhofe if he believes I "advocate criminally-based activity," Martosko gravely intoned, "It is a fact."
For the record, Herr Martosko, Herr Inhofe, and other Brown Shirt agents of persecution: I defend the ALF only in words, never deeds. I work for animal rights only in legal ways, never illegal ways, and I operate openly in the aboveground movement and never clandestinely in the underground movement. Despite your paranoid fantasies that put HSUS on par with Al Qaeda, I am not a member of the ALF, nor do I know or communicate with anyone in the ALF. My relation to the ALF as an outside sympathizer is entirely peripheral, and hardly stems from a command post at its "epicenter," a ludicrous metaphor for a decentralized movement. And although I commend and support the just and courageous actions of the ALF, I have never attempted to recruit students into its ranks. (2) Sorry to disappoint the snarling, salivating dogs of accusation and calumny, but I guess that makes me something less than a "conduit of terror" to the mainstream.
Shreds of Sanity
"In our time political speech and writing are largely defense of the indefensible." –George Orwell
Though equally vehement in their excoriation of the ALF and ELF, some Democratic lawmakers objected that the committee’s focus was selective, politically motivated, meant to smear legitimate environmental and animal welfare groups by associating them with extremists and criminals, and displayed warped priorities by prioritizing a war on the ALF and ELF over the far greater danger of right-wing extremist groups.
Dr. David Skorton, President of the University of Iowa whose Psychology Department animal laboratories were targeted by the ALF in a daring November 2004 raid, resisted Herr Inhofe’s bullying attempts to characterize the strike as "terrorism." In an interview published after the hearing, Skorton said: "I called this a criminal act and I am always careful with the words I choose. It is criminal because it broke laws." (3) It is unarguable that the ALF is a "criminal" organization in the strict legal sense that it breaks laws, but not in an ethical sense that entails moral wrongness and dishonor. Harriet Tubman, the suffragettes, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were also "criminals. While Skorton refuses to "dignify" the ALF by putting it in such esteemed company, he at least prefers a legally accurate and sufficient term to characterize ALF actions over the vague, vacuous, and politically charged discourse of "terrorism" that says more about the accusers than the accused.
Upon expressing agreement that ALF and ELF activists are "criminals" who must be stopped, for example, Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.), in a written statement submitted to the record, expressed some important reservations and raised potential dangers with a witch hunt on animal and environmental activism. "In our quest to apprehend these criminals," Obama said,
I hope we are not headed down the path of infringing on the ability of legitimate advocacy organizations to express their opinions and to raise funds in order to do so. I do not want Americans to equate groups that advocate violence with mainstream environmental organizations.
We also need to put these violent acts into context. The FBI has indicated a downward trend in the number of crimes committed by these groups—approximately 60 in 2004. While I want these crimes stopped, I do not want people to think that the threat from these organizations is equivalent to other crimes faced by Americans every day. According to the FBI, there were over 7,400 hate crimes committed in 2003—half of which racially motivated. More directly relevant to this committee, the FBI reports 450 pending environmental crimes cases involving worker endangerment or threats to public health or the environment.
So, while I appreciate the Chairman’s interest in these fringe groups, I urge the Committee to focus its attention on larger environmental threats, such as the dangerously high blood lead levels in hundreds of thousands of children. With all due respect, Mr. Chairman, I believe the Committee’s time would be better spent learning why EPA has not promulgated regulations to deal with lead paint in remodeled homes. Such an oversight hearing could have a significant impact on improving the lives of children all over the country.
Obama cogently questions the rationality of prioritizing an assault on activists who threaten some corporate interests and have never committed violent attacks against anyone over menacing groups armed to the teeth and with a proven track record of violence, while neglecting an endless array of urgent social problems such as the well-being of children needlessly poisoned due to government negligence. Martosko’s priorities, in contradiction, are not with human health and happiness but rather with corporate profits, such that his misnamed organization is far better characterized as the Center for Corporate Freedom. It is with some irony, therefore, that Martosko and the CCF accuse animal rights activists of being anti-human. (4)
Like Skorton, and unlike the zealous Senator David Vitter who sounded the drumbeat against menacing domestic terrorists in masks, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) resisted promiscuous use of the T-word, understanding that it is abused as a weapon of persecution. "I deplore as much as anybody here these violent acts," Lautenberg said, "but I am against this loose characterization that takes innocent people and throws them in with a bunch of thugs." He drew important distinctions between criminal acts done by murderers, terrorists, and religious extremists, and political fanatics, and those committed by "terrorists." He deplored the ALF as a criminal element, but refused to call them terrorists. He cleverly caught the FBI Czar in a contradiction, where Lewis mechanically applied the T-word to the ALF and ELF actions, but paused and stumbled when asked if he would also apply the term to right wing anti-abortionists who used arson tactics.
Like Obama, Lautenberg argued that:
We need to keep things in perspective. … the Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people. The attacks of 9/11 killed 3,000. Since 1993, there have been at least five fatal attacks on doctors who performed legal abortions. Eric Rudolph recently pleaded guilty to placing a bomb in a public area during the Olympic Games in 1996, as well as bombing a Birmingham women’s clinic and a gay nightclub.
All of these cases involved the loss of human life. To date, not a single incident of so-called environmental terrorism has killed anyone. It’s wrong to destroy property and intimidate people who are doing their jobs – and those who commit these crimes must be brought to justice.
Lautenberg thereby questioned the sanity of targeting animal rights and environmental militants who have never harmed anyone rather than right-wing extremists—from militia men and neo-Nazis to Christian extremists of all disgusting flavors—who spew bigotry and hatred and implement their values with guns and bombs.
Given the priorities of the corporate-state complex, for which property is sacred and life is profane, it is a more serious crime in this nation to threaten the profits of a corporation than to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (killing 168 people and wounding more than 500); set off a bomb at the Atlanta Olympics (killing one person and injuring 100) and to assassinate doctors who perform abortions. It is more heinous to smash the computers of animal abusers than to murder blacks, Jews, and immigrants. It is a greater terrorist offense to possess bolt cutters than to stockpile weapons of mass destruction such as anthrax, sodium cyanide bombs, machine guns, several hundred thousand rounds of ammunition, and remote-control explosive devices. Jeffery "Free" Leurs got a 22 year prison sentence for torching a few SUVs, whereas one can murder and rape in this country and receive far lighter penalties.
One would think that given the catastrophic "intelligence" failures of the FBI that allowed the tragedy of 9/11 to happen despite screaming warning signals, as well as the plethora of existing vulnerabilities in the nation’s security from additional foreign terrorist attacks (on our ports, airlines, nuclear power plants, chemical storage facilities, and so on), that the FBI would not dare to squander a minute, person, or dollar hounding the animal rights and environmental movements. It is pathetic and tragic that the federal government is wasting precious resources on persecuting activists defending animals and the earth from attack, while leaving our nation unprotected from real foreign and domestic terror threats, none greater than the U-SS state itself. Let no one forget these warped, corporate-driven priorities when the next skyscraper on American soil crashes to the ground in a fiery heap.
One important critic was silenced, as Inhofe refused to hear or admit testimony from Representative Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Inhofe’s’ Gestapo tactics marked the first time that a member of Congress was denied permission to testify before a Committee after formally requesting to do so. Thompson intended to address a recent Homeland Security document that exaggerated the threat posed by the ALF and ELF while downplaying the far greater dangers posed by right-wing extremists. (5) In his formal rebuke to Inhofe, Thompson argued that:
[H]arm to critical infrastructure is posed by both left-wing and right-wing "special interest" domestic terror groups. For example, 35 homes under construction in the Maryland subdivision of Hunters Brooke were partially or entirely destroyed by arson in December, 2004. The perpetrators torched the entire subdivision because they believed many of the families who would move in were African American. This arson attack was characterized as ‘the worst arson in Maryland history,’ and this one incident caused approximately $10 million in damage—almost 1/10th the damage alleged to have been caused by ALF and ELF—and all other environmental extremist groups—in the last 14 years. Right-wing domestic terror groups are also responsible for the destruction of other infrastructure such as abortion clinics, minority houses of worship, and federal buildings. The fact that we just commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing is a sad testament to the fact that right-wing groups have, and will continue to, use any means to achieve their political goals, regardless of whether innocent civilians are killed.
Domestic terrorism that destroys property is terrible—whether committed by leftwing or right-wing "special interest" domestic terrorists. Equally terrible is your failure to address this serious topic in a thorough and non- partisan manner. (6)
May I Reproach the Bench?
"Bush’s War on Terrorism is no longer limited to Al Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden… The rounding up of activists should set off alarms heard by every social movement in the United States: This ‘war’ is about protecting corporate and political interests under the guise of fighting terrorism."
"Bless our nation of laws."
Despite the small measures of dissent to the persecutorial nature of the hearing expressed by Skorton and Lautenberg, everyone present—none more than Skorton and Lautenberg themselves—celebrated the virtues of democracy and science. All down the line, the band of merry men praised the miracles that modern capitalism and biomedical research supposedly bring to the lives of all. They deplored the "criminal actions" of the ALF and ELF as abominations unsuited for an open, pluralistic society where supposedly the Lady of Justice wears a mask that blinds her to special interests. Skorton pontificated about the vital role of animal experimentation for medical progress and vacuously boast about the alleged professional treatment animals enjoy in their cages at University of Iowa laboratories. (7) No one discussed the corruption of American "democracy" by corporate monopolies, oligarchic structures, campaign contributions and mass media, an ever-growing gap between the rich and poor and hardening class stratification system. Left unmentioned were the stunning failures of vivisection that held back medical progress time and time again and the corrupt relationship between the FDA and the pharmaceutical industries its serves.
For years, despite various punitive consequences, I have openly expressed support for the courageous and just actions of the ALF. Similar to the Underground Railroad of the 19th century abolitionist movement, the ALF—our own 21st century abolitionist movement—breaks into laboratories, frees captive animals, and provides them with much-needed veterinary care, and provides them with loving homes. Unlike those who torture, exploit, and kill animals for profit and dubious "research" purposes, the ALF does not fit any viable definition of terrorism. They seek to destroy the property of those who exploit animals, but in over three decades of actions in twenty countries, they have never harmed a living being.
After 9/11, President Bush said that, "A nation has a right to defend itself against terror" I believe this is true of the animal nations too. But since they cannot defend themselves, animal rights activists come to their aid. I call this concept extensional self defense. Whereas legal approaches can reduce the suffering of animals, they can never by themselves eliminate it as the state is controlled by powerful corporate interests, including the animal exploitation industries
This Senate "investigation" underscores some of the most exquisitely excruciating ironies of the day. While strident voices from the corporate-state complex traduce "terrorists" who use despicable tactics of threats and intimidation, the entire televised charade was meant to threaten and intimidate anyone who would dare question authority of any kind. Everyday, the state, urged, aided and abetted by corporate interests, seeks to intimidate activists with surveillance and questioning, threatens them with jail and punishment, and tries to promote fear and terror among those with a strong conscience and will to protect the earth from violent assault. The White Christians and Corporate Titians excoriate activists who maneuver outside their corrupt institutions while they routinely flout legal norms through influence peddling, back-room deals, bribes, and campaign contributions.
The true criminals never tire of warning that "someday someone will get hurt" while billions of animals suffer and die, species slide toward oblivion, rainforests fall to powersaws and bulldozers, glaciers melt into nothingness, and the Antarctic ice shelves crash into the sea, as the planet heats up catastrophically to accommodate the interests of the fossil fuel industry. An extreme anti-environmentalist and toadying bootlicker for the Masters of War, Inhofe presides over this devastation as a leading criminal and intolerable threat to the planet. If Inhofe is looking for terrorists, he need look no farther than the mirror.
I understand that my views are controversial and unpopular, but they are protected by the Constitution, a document that theoretically still guides government and social life. In essence, the First Amendment is designed to protect challenging, critical, and controversial speech acts, not banal exchanges at the bus stop or praise for the status quo. Contemptuous of democracy, Herr Inhofe, however, sees it a different way. Inhofe claims that I have "crossed the line" from legitimate free speech to advocating and inciting violence. I invite him to define the term "violence" in a satisfactory way, and to contemplate the difference between defending the ALF and "advocating and inciting violence," as well as the distinction between advocating and inciting violence. One can advocate violence without inciting it, and so long as that line is not crossed, even advocacy of violence falls under the protection of the First Amendment.
But these are constitutional niceties no longer respected. The First Amendment right to express one’s political views has been targeted for a semantic regime change, and is now called "rhetorical support" for criminal activities, as well as advocating and inciting violence. In the U-SS-A, it is increasingly the case that the Constitution is little but a historical document, a political simulacrum eclipsed by the fascist policies of the Corporate Panopticon Police State regulated by the Patriot Act and its sundry supplements. [As I write, Bush is pounding the pulpit throughout the nation, working to ensure that the "sunset provisions" of the Patriot Act—passed as emergency measures after 9/11 to temporarily increase state powers of surveillance—are permanently retained as vital elements of the perversely named doctrine that presides as authoritarian fact over the "democratic" fiction.]
In a sane and humane Washington, the legislative branch of government would be holding hearings on how to eradicate animal suffering and exploitation and deal with the catastrophic threat of global warming, rather than scheming how to perpetuate agony and destruction on this planet. It would give its utmost respect and attention to advocates of animal rights, veganism, and ecology and throw corporate exploiters and their puppet propagandists in the same pen with other criminals who violate ethics and life. It would attend to the real domestic terrorist threat—that posed by extreme right wing hate groups—not the ALF, ELF, or SHAC. In a sane and humane world, the ALF, ELF, and SHAC would not even be necessary.
(1) True, had I gone I would have been able to offer a true dissenting voice, one that challenged the core assumptions behind the sycophantic praise for capitalist "democracy," the rule of law, and the virtues of vivisection. But I had already booked a student tour of Egypt during the time of the hearing and, on principle, I did not want to present myself as someone subject to the beck and call of the DC Gestapo.
(2) For evidence of his claims, Martosko cites two points: "University of Texas El Paso professor Steven Best—an ardent defender and press officer for ALF who refused to appear at yesterday’s Senate hearing or assist in any way—said: ‘I am in the above ground support movement, I do not operate in both worlds such that I am in contact with anyone in the ALF or recruit anyone for it.’ That’s funny, since Best has been caught on camera saying: `It’s the same thing with the ALF. We are breaking down doors, breaking into buildings, rescuing animals, and smashing property.’ He’s also posed on camera posing with Rodney Coronado" (see http://canadafreepress.com/2005/tgr052105.htm). The use of the word "we" instead of "they" was nothing but an unconscious expression of solidarity with the ALF, hardly a confession or coming out of the ALF closet. Martosko’s term "caught" evokes an image of undercover footage of me at an ALF recruit meeting, rather than a television interview I willingly gave. The picture with Coronado was taken after a chance encounter, and hardly demonstrates a deep and organic connection with the ALF, a movement Coronado himself is no longer attached to regardless. But Martosko steamrolls over fine points like these in his exasperated rush to judgment.
(4) For details on corporate interests CCF serves and its violations of its tax-exempt status (charges ironically it tried to pin on PETA), click here.
(5) On the report, see: http://www.spinwatch.org/modules.php?name=News&file=print&sid=833.
(6) For Thompson’s complaint, see: http://www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=109&STORY=/www/story/05-20-2005/0003643155&EDATE=
(7) For a detailed expose of the lies and callousness of UI researchers, click here.
Dr. Steven Best is the chair of philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso. His latest book, co-edited with Anthony J. Nocella, is
Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals.