Animal rights and wrongs
The campaign against the Newchurch guinea pig farm may have shocked, but Nelson Mandela would understand it.
August 24, 2005
No one, I think, would put the attempt to liberate the Newchurch guinea pigs on a par with the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa. A few thousand - or even a few tens of thousands - of furry laboratory animals is not on the same scale as an entire repressed nation. But perhaps the two struggles are not as far apart as you think.
The Hall family's decision to close down their guinea-pigs-for-laboratories enterprise, and return to more traditional farming, is a result of terrorism. The family, and almost everyone they know, have been the target of sabotage, bomb hoaxes, hate mail, a paedophile smear campaign, malicious phone calls and arson attacks. Most appallingly, the body of Gladys Hammond, a Hall family relative, was dug up and her bones kidnapped. Electricity pylons have been blown up. There have been demos outside the farm every Sunday and Wednesday for the past five years.
All of these are clearly forms of terror, delivered by people who have thought, and probably rightly, that their campaign for the better treatment of the guinea pigs would not get anywhere if they used more polite, or less violent methods. The science and government establishments have been set against them and, to stay true to their ideals, they have had no alternative.
We all hate terrorists, but as a side-light on this nasty and bitter corner of modern life, it is interesting to read what Nelson Mandela, at his trial for violence and sabotage in October 1963, had to say about those crimes. This was the trial at which he was convicted and sent to Robben Island for life. He admitted quite freely that he was guilty of what he was accused of. "I do not deny that I planned sabotage," he told the court. "I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation. Without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle."
As a small armed wing of the ANC, Mandela had formed Umkhonto we Sizwe, meaning Spear of the Nation, because without such a channel, any violence would have been chaotic and far more destructive. The leaders of the ANC felt they had no other option. Mandela quoted Chief Lutuli, who had led the ANC in the 1950s: "Who will deny that 30 years of my life have been spent knocking in vain, patiently, moderately and modestly at a closed and barred door? What have been the fruits of moderation? The past 30 years have seen the greatest number of laws restricting our rights and progress, until today we have reached a stage where we have almost no rights at all."
It is largely forgotten now but Mandela received guerrilla training in Algeria. The notes he made from the lectures he attended there were produced in court. He studied Clausewitz, Mao Zedong and Che Guevara. He prepared himself, quite cold-headedly, as he told the court, for "guerrilla warfare. I wanted to be able to stand and fight with my people to share the hazards of war with them." It never came to that because he was caught and imprisoned before he could take up arms. The sabotage of government buildings and electricity pylons and setting up the training regimes for recruits was all he was responsible for.
There is, in this comparison, a problem of scale and, to be honest, of seriousness, but there is not a deep or very real distinction in principle. Mandela's term for his control of Umkhonto we Sizwe was "properly controlled violence". Seen simply in tactical and strategic terms, that phrase would be perfectly appropriate for the things that animal rights activists have been doing to the Halls, their friends, families, employees and neighbours. Digging up the body of Gladys Hammond - deeply shocking as it is - is nevertheless a very precisely calibrated act of terror. Not in moral but in these tactical terms, you could see it as a form of "properly controlled violence".
It may be in the future that the use of large numbers of animals to test drugs, for which the motivation is often commercial, not humanitarian, will come to seem outrageous and that the treatment of animals in our society will be thought of as one of our great blindspots. (Nothing new there: ducks in Tudor England had their feet nailed to the floor so that their flesh would not be coarsened by exercise.) If that does happen, then the campaign to close down the guinea pig sheds at Darley Oaks Farm will surely look like a violent, necessary and ugly step on the long march to freedom.