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Who's Afraid of Jerry Vlasak?
by Dr. Steven Best

Dr. Jerry Vlasak is known for many things. He is a trauma surgeon in Los Angeles, a militant animal rights activist, a former vivisector turned renowned critic of vivisection, a scientific advisor to groups like Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) and In Defense of Animals, and a founder and Press Officer for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office. He also has a lot of "former" roles on his resume, such as former spokesperson for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and former Board Member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Vlasak has earned the exile status of "former" for his controversial public defense of violence as a legitimate tactic for the animal rights/liberation movement to use against those who exploit animals for profit or "research." He is also a former visitor to the UK. In summer 2004, UK Home Secretary David Blunkett, always acting in defense of the vivisection industry so important to the British economy, saw it fit to ban Vlasak, along with Pamelyn Ferdin, from again entering the UK because of his controversial exercise of free speech rights. In effect, Blunkett's action elevated Vlasak from a mere (US) "domestic terrorist" to the more menacing status of "international terrorist."

Justifications for Violence

Vlasak has defended the use of violence on two grounds. On moral grounds, he believes that any tactics -- ranging from threats and break-ins to sabotage and even assault or murder --- are legitimate given the suffering exploiters inflict on animals, the impossibility of ending their misery through legal systems that cater to exploitation industries and define animals as property, and the moral imperative to save animals from the violent clutches of exploiters. On pragmatic grounds, Vlasak believes that the use of violence would be an effective intimidation tactic and would stop numerous individuals from exploiting animals while preventing others from ever embarking on that heinous path.

Both arguments require greater rigor and detail in their presentation and response to counter-arguments, but Vlasak has put them on the table in dramatic ways. He has brought unprecedented international media attention to the cause of animal liberation as an underground, illegal but totally valid means of defending innocent animals from their violent oppressors. When Malcolm X said black liberation must be won "by any means necessary," he was not advocating violence as a proactive tactic but rather reserving the right of self defense to black people in a situation where cops are more likely to violate than protect their human rights.

Similarly, when Vlasak urges animal liberation by any means necessary, he is asserting the right of animals to self defense. But since they cannot defend themselves (except for instances such as where elephants or tigers justly kill their trainers), humans must act on their behalf. And if violence is needed to save an animal from attack, then violence is legitimate as a means of self defense for animals. If one likes, this could be called extensional self defense, since humans are acting on behalf of animals who are so vulnerable and oppressed they cannot fight back to attack or kill their oppressors.

What I call extensional self defense mirrors penal code statues in California and other states, known as the "necessity defense." A defendant can invoke this defense when he or she believes that the illegal action taken was immediately necessary to avoid immanent and great harm to someone, and the urgency and desirability of avoiding the harm clearly outweigh the wrong of breaking a law, as well as the harm that would have resulted had the action not been taken. Certainly, the necessity defense could be used to justify unethical and unwarranted acts of violence, but clearly the principles of law and ethics do not always overlap and acts of civil disobedience, sabotage, and even violence in certain cases may have a strong rationale.

Vlasak appeals to situations in human society where violence is legitimate as a means of stopping greater violence or a method of self-defense. He argues that to dismiss the use of similar arguments in defense of animals is sheer speciesism, as he himself draws the logical conclusions others -- including the vast majority of people in the animal rights movement -- cannot or will not draw. Vlasak simply says what many are thinking or what logic dictates apart from the constraints of speciesism. Vlasak is also somewhat unique in the animal rights movement in his ability to situate animal liberation struggles within the larger historical context of past human liberation struggles. Vlasak underscores the hypocrisy of those who condemn attacks on property but condone the appalling violence inflicted on animals. He exposes the inconsistency where people rail against the ALF as "terrorists," even though in thirty years of operation they have never harmed a single human being, while ignoring what animal exploiters do to animals and the many occasions they have harmed and even killed activists.

One can see Vlasak (along with Paul Watson, Rod Coronado, Kevin Jonas, and others) as an example of "the transition of the animal rights movement from compassionate to menacing," as the anti-animal rights people say. Or, one can see him as a vivid indicator of a planetary eco-crisis where increasingly activists defending animals and the earth are forced to adopt more militant positions and tactics to effectively fight corporate exploiters. For they will destroy the earth before they relinquish their control, and while Rome burns one finds just too many fiddlers in activist movements.

Demonizing the Doctor

The demonization of Dr. Jerry Vlasak began once his remarks from a question and answer session following his talk at the Animal Rights 2003 convention were widely distributed over the Internet by advocates of violence toward animals who were shocked anyone would challenge their monopoly on violence. When asked about his views on the use of violent tactics to achieve animal liberation goals, Vlasak replied:

I think there is a use for violence in our movement. And I think it can be an effective strategy. Not only is it morally acceptable, I think that there are places where it could be used quite effectively from a pragmatic standpoint.

For instance, if vivisectors were routinely being killed, I think it would give other vivisectors pause in what they were doing in their work - and if these vivisectors were being targeted for assassination, and call it political assassination or what have you, I think if -- and I wouldn't pick some guy way down the totem pole, but if there were prominent vivisectors being assassinated, I think that there would be a trickle-down effect and many, many people who are lower on that totem pole would say, "I'm not going to get into this business because it's a very dangerous business and there's other things I can do with my life that don't involve getting into a dangerous business." And I think that the -- strictly from a fear and intimidation factor, that would be an effective tactic.[1]

And I don't think you'd have to kill -- assassinate -- too many vivisectors before you would see a marked decrease in the amount of vivisection going on. And I think for 5 lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, 2 million, 10 million non-human animals.

And I -- you know - people get all excited about, "Oh what's going to happen when - the ALF accidentally kills somebody in an arson?" Well, you know I mean -- I think we need to get used to this idea. It's going to happen, okay? It's going to happen.

For these words, Vlasak's outraged braying critics transformed him into the John Brown or Eric Rudolph of the animal rights movement. Read carefully, it is clear that Vlasak is not advocating violence, although he does think it is morally justifiable to use some violence in order to save animals from a far greater level of violence. Mainly, Vlasak is laying out an imaginary scenario where he speculates that were someone to kill a certain number of vivisectors, it would in fact have a positive benefit for animals, as it would intimidate many actual vivisectors into ending their experiments on animals while driving numerous potential vivisectors into other lines of research. Basically, Vlasak is simply making a tautological statement, something true by definition, telling us that 2 + 2 = 4.

Moreover, looking at the dynamics of many past human liberation movements, Vlasak claims that someone in the animal liberation movement, sooner or later, will use violence against animal exploiters. Decades or even years from now, animal exploiters may reminisce about the good old days when they only had to worry about attacks on their property instead of their lives. Opponents of animal rights also are saying this with increasing frequency as they too recognize the struggle for animal liberation is becoming increasingly tough and militant. So why the hysteria when the augur comes from Vlasak? As shocking as an assassination of a vivisector, fur farmer, corporate pimp from the Center for Consumer Freedom, or noxious nuisance from the vile Animal Crackers web site might be, Vlasak does not think the negative publicity will discredit or destroy the animal rights movement as a whole, any more than the actions of Eric Rudolph and other members of groups such as the Army of God threatened the integrity of the anti-abortion movement or the pro-violence period of Nelson Mandela�s activist career tarnished the current halo over his head as he made the transition from terrorist to freedom fighter.

In making these claims, Vlasak certainly entered into controversial territory, shocked and angered vivisectors and other speciesists, and even got banned from the UK. But his words fall squarely within the First Amendment of the US Constitution and therefore are constitutionally protected. The very essence of the First Amendment is to protect unpopular speech, words that many people might find offensive and objectionable, statements such as Vlasak made at the AR2003 conference. Everyone knows that exploiters of any kind love free speech so long as they are the ones using it in honor of their detestable motives and unconscionable actions. Had Vlasak actually advocated violence against vivisectors in such a way as to incite and possibly provoke immanent violence, he would have crossed a legal line. Despite the frenzied distortions of critics who favor violence toward animals but not toward humans, Vlasak in fact did not cross this line.

Vlasak is speculating about the use of violence in the broader historical context of past human liberation movements that often used violence to end the violent oppression of one group over another. The US War of Independence comes to mind. In a subsequent clarification of his views after the radioactive fallout from his initial statement, Vlasak said:

You cannot put the animal rights movement in a vacuum. You must put it in a historical context. We are fighting for the right of nonhuman sentient beings to not be exploited, taken against their will, imprisoned, and then tortured beyond anyone's comprehension for profit and bad science.

In looking at other historical movements to end the obscenity and egregious violence and death to innocent lives, including the fight against apartheid in South Africa, the fight to free black slaves here in the US, and the fight for the rights of indigenous cultures, violence has been used and there have been casualties. People have been killed over absolutely ridiculous things like oil, power, and money. It would be "speciesist" of me to say that in a battle for the moral and ethical high ground, in the fight on behalf of the most oppressed, abused and tortured beings the world has even known, that there will never be casualties. I'm not encouraging or calling for this, I am simply stating that the animal rights movement is and has been the most peaceful and restrained movement the world has ever known considering the amount of terror, abuse, and murder done to innocent animals for greed and profit. If by chance violence is used by those who fight for non human sentient beings, or even if there are casualties, it must be looked at in perspective and in a historical context (emphasis mine).

Vlasak reiterated these points countless times to various international media, distinguishing between his view that violence is a morally defensible tactic and a view that actually advocates violence. In a July 26 2004 interview with BBC Radio 4's Today program, for example, Vlasak stated:

I am personally not advocating, condoning or recommending that anybody be killed. I am a physician who saves lives. I spend my entire day saving people's lives. All I am saying, in a historical context, [is that] violence has been used against us as animal rights campaigners and against the animals and is no different from us using violence on the other side. In any struggle against oppression, historically speaking, from the days of slavery in America to the days of apartheid in South Africa, violence has been necessary. I don't see the animal rights struggle for liberation as any different from any other struggle that has gone on throughout history.

When interviewed on Australian TV in October 2004, Vlasak did not back down from his positions, and had the following exchange with show's host:

JENNY BROCKIE: How far are you prepared to go though, because you've been quoted as saying, I think, five lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives would save 1 million, 2 million, 10 million non-human lives. And you've also said that violence is a morally acceptable tactic, and that it might be useful in the struggle for animal liberation. Do you stand by all that?

JERRY VLASAK: I do stand by all that. If you look at historically, at all the struggles against oppression, whether it was against apartheid in South Africa, slavery here in America, other struggles in Northern Ireland, Ireland, Iraq, Vietnam - everywhere that there's been struggles against oppression and for liberation, violence has been used. And, by the way, they are using violence on their side all the time. They are using violence in laboratories where they kill all these animals in slow tortuous ways, and they are using violence against animal rights campaigners. At least a dozen animal rights campaigners have been killed by the animal abusers, but yet no-one seems to be talking about that.

JENNY BROCKIE: So would you take a human life to save an animal life, is this what you are saying?

JERRY VLASAK: I am not saying that's never going to happen.

JENNY BROCKIE: That's pretty close to what you said in the quote.

JERRY VLASAK: Would I advocate taking five guilty vivisectors' lives to save hundreds of millions of innocent animal lives? Yes, I would.

Put in the hot seat on live TV, Vlasak did not equivocate on or parse his initial statement in any way. Yet, unlike past interviews, Vlasak here actually claims to "advocate" killing vivisectors to save animals for the first time, saying something previously he denied. Perhaps he misspoke, or perhaps his line is hardening. It is one isolated advocacy of violence statement, the only one to my knowledge.

Vlasak clearly favors the lives of millions of innocent animals over the corrupt humans guilty of torturing and killing them, and he has the right to air his views. Even in this context, where he would "advocate" the murder of vivisectors if it saved animal lives, he is still within his constitutional rights for he is not inciting violence in an inflammatory way. He is speaking in personal and hypothetical terms, not urging others to go out and murder vivisectors.

Seal Wars

In April 2005, Vlasak accompanied Paul Watson and other members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to confront sealers and thwart their goal to kill over 350,000 seals. Vlasak's views on violence were put to a concrete test when he was attacked on the ice by an irate sealer. Knocked down and his nose bloodied, Vlasak peacefully resisted the attack and did not return any blows. Odd behavior for a Prophet of violence.

In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company (basically a propaganda tool of the Canadian state), however, Vlasak moved from the ice flows off Prince Edwards Island into the hot water of hostile media attention. When asked if sealers were comparable in malice to vivisectors, Vlasak unflinchingly replied, "Yeah, I think they're all abhorrent. The threat of violence would be another way to stop them and I would be behind that threat." [2]

In place of any mention of the barbarous carnage against the seals, the CBC and Vlasak's critics predictably seized on his comment. While sealers unleashed a savage fury of violence against hundreds of thousands of seals, the Canadian media vilified Vlasak as violent and extreme. Much of the Canadian media actually defended the massacre of seals as a noble tradition that used "humane" killing methods (such as stripping the skin off a baby seal while it is still conscious and alive). Enough hypocritical public pressure was exerted on the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Board of Directors that the Board removed Vlasak from his position.

While Vlasak clearly has paid a high price for airing his controversial views, he is to be commended for the courage to take a provocative stand and to consistently follow the logic of liberation ethics and politics. Vlasak's critics within the animal rights movement can carp about the negative image of animal rights they believe he is creating, but he has also garnered copious worldwide media attention and the unprecedented opportunity to educate various publics about the horrors of vivisection and seal massacres. As demonstrated in the case of CBC coverage, however, it does not follow from the fact that Vlasak gets media attention that it will be positive and stay focused on the plight of animals instead of his controversial words. It is a Catch-22 situation where one needs provocative words and actions to capture the media spotlight, but the media can easily focus on the spectacle of the speaker rather than the references of his speech.

Thus, the challenge for Vlasak is to keep the message on animal exploitation, and not his own words; to show that the real violence and terrorism stems from animal exploiters, and not animal liberationists. In virtually every speech act, indeed, Vlasak seeks to expose the outrageous hypocrisy whereby critics accuse the animal liberation movement of violence whereas exploiters soak the earth in the blood of animals every year, as they assault and sometimes kill nonviolent animal activists.

The Halls of Hypocrisy

While Vlasak is crucified for controversial remarks that challenge the right of animal exploiters to monopolize the use of violence, the abhorrent speech acts of others go unnoticed if they come from the Right. The Right has a heart attack over Ward Churchill's indelicate remark that the victims of 9/11 were "little Eichmanns" in some sense, but there was no outrage or talk of firing whatsoever when three star marine general James Mattis, who commanded Marine expeditions in Afghanistan and Iraq, publicly stated that "Actually it's quite fun to fight [Iraqis], you know. It's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people." Similarly, Alberto Gonzalez, a close friend of Bush and the attorney who drafted the policies justifying torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, not only was not fired for his callous violations of international law and humanitarian policies, he was promoted to the highest legal office in the land, Attorney General.

Where is the rabid reaction to snarling pro-violence right-wing commentator Ann Coulter whenever she spouts inanities such as, "My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building"? For Coulter, it's ok to kill people so long as they are "liberals." Where is the backlash for the outrageous remarks Ted Nugent made at the March 2005 NRA convention, when he blared: "Remember the Alamo! Shoot 'em!"[3] he screamed to applause. "To show you how radical I am, I want carjackers dead. I want rapists dead. I want burglars dead. I want child molesters dead. I want the bad guys dead. No court case. No parole. No early release. I want 'em dead. Get a gun and when they attack you, shoot 'em." Nugent is advocating indiscriminate killing and vigilantism, all without any legal due process. No rights, constitution, court system, or justice of any kind. Did Nugent pay a price for this fascist remark? Were his supporters pressured to distance themselves from him? Of course not. Nugent engages in the socially-sanctioned actions of murdering animals, whereas Vlasak upsets the conventions of speciesist violence to receive the full weight of opprobrium available from a sick and distorted world.

It is one thing when troglodytes like Nugent espouse violence, but recently threats of violence have come from right-wing members of Congress. In the aftermath of the failed battle to save the life of Terri Schiavo in May-April 2005, "pro-life" conservatives launched a crusade against "activist judges" -- namely, liberal judges -- who make decisions anything to the left of extreme right. Speaking from the Senate floor on April 4, Republican Senator John Cornyn cited the Shiavo case and the March 1 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed the death penalty for juveniles as examples of "judicial activism." Anytime a judge with liberal sensibilities rules out of accord with the agenda of the religious right, you have an example of "judicial activism."

In the painful aftermath of April 2005, when two judges were shot down in Chicago and Atlanta, Cornyn remarked, "I don't know if there is a cause-and-effect connection, but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country. . . . And I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters, on some occasions, where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in violence. Certainly without any justification, but a concern that I have."

As he meekly condemns the murder of federal judges from one side of his mouth, from the other he is implying that it is acceptable to kill "activist" judges for the sin of non-compliance with right-wing agendas. Shortly before this menacing grandstanding, once various judges turned down all legal appeals to save the life of Terri Shiavo, House Majority Leader Tom Delay intoned ominously, "The time will come when the men responsible for this will answer for their behavior."

However Cornyn and Delay want to parse their statements, they are threats and apologies for the murder of liberal judges allegedly out of touch with "mainstream America" and the "pro-life" right-wing values crusade that endorses homophobia, militarism, imperialism, unlimited access to guns, and a broad application of the death penalty. They are far more threatening than anything said by Jerry Vlasak. Given the volatility of extreme right-wing sentiment in this country, where Neo-Nazis, militias, rabid ant-abortionists and other groups have a track record of violence and murder, the reckless statements of Cornyn and Delay are far closer to actually inciting violence than anything Vlasak said. And where Vlasak's remarks might apply to an underground liberation movement that has no record of violence toward human beings, the ultra-right wing nation appealed to by Cornyn and Delay endorses and uses violence, and is a powder keg waiting to explode. Should someone feel vindicated by their remarks and assassinate a federal judge, Cornyn and Delay must bear some responsibility for the loss of life.

Warped Priorities

Let�s put moral outrage in perspective here. We are talking about the difference between an animal liberationist abstractly discussing or defending violence against vivisectors and people who make their living by confining animals in small cages and concrete dungeons, invading their brains with electrodes, pumping them full of toxic chemicals, poisoning them with radiation, smashing their skulls with pneumatic devices, mutilating their sex organs, sewing their eyelids together, and on and on. The list of barbarities is endless and rivals or surpasses anything Dr. Mengele did to his victims. We�re talking about a trauma surgeon who out of compassion saves lives versus people who with hatred and contempt take lives. The real violence, the real terrorism, stems not from anyone like Jerry Vlasak, but rather fur farmers, vivisectors, hunters, trappers, sealers, whalers, mangers of factory farms and slaughterhouses, and the corporations that profit from the misery and bloodbath of the ongoing animal holocaust.

Neither the UK nor the US has anything to fear from Jerry Vlasak. Let every animal exploiter tremble at the mere mention of the ALF, but citizens have nothing to fear from the dedicated, courageous, and compassionate souls who will break through barriers and security systems to rescue animals from their captivity and dire agony.

In bold contrast, the extreme right-wing US government has conveniently excluded extreme right-wing political groups from the "domestic terrorism" priority list. Unlike the ALF or ELF, militia men and groups like the Army of God are a serious threat to people, for they have a proven track record of hatred and violence. 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; to set off a bomb at the Atlanta Olympics, killing one person and injuring 100; to kill doctors who perform abortions; to kill blacks, Jews, and immigrants; to possess weapons of mass destruction such as anthrax, sodium cyanide bombs, machine guns, several hundred thousand rounds of ammunition, and remote-control explosive devices.

These are all crimes of the extreme right, whose myriad organizations the state considers less a threat to citizens and homeland security than the ALF. But the ALF threatens corporate profits, not people; since in this demented society, profit is more valuable than life, the ALF, along with the ELF, is Public Enemy Number One. On April 25, 2005, a Newsday.com article reported that, "A recent Homeland Security document lists the Animal Liberation Front among groups that could potentially support Al Qaeda as domestic terrorism threats."[4] This document constructs an absurd fabrication, misrepresentation, and inverted distortion of the facts. The political views of the ALF are Left anarchism and are diametrically opposed to the violent, patriarchal, authoritarian, and fundamentalist outlook of Al Qaeda. Whereas the ALF has no philosophical or organizational links to Al Qaeda whatsoever, right wing extremists in the US are far more predisposed to violent opposition to the US government and terrorist attacks on American citizens. According to the Council on Foreign Relations,

There are no known operational links between domestic terrorist groups and al-Qaeda, but monitoring organizations have noted that both American right-wing extremists and Islamist militants spread similar theories about Jews, Freemasons, and other groups conspiring to control the world. Moreover, some white supremacists applauded the September 11 attacks. "Anyone who is willing to drive a plane into a building to kill Jews is alright by me," said one leader of the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group based in West Virginia; "I wish our members had half as much testicular fortitude.[5]

By linguistic fiat and domination of mass media and public opinion, the Right and Corporate America control the definitions and discourse of "terrorism." Accordingly, by these golden standards, state violence, corporate violence, and the human species violence against animals are ruled out of the definition of terrorism, as property destruction, documentation of violence and destruction, and other tactics of animal rights and environmental organizations -- as well as dissent in general -- are ruled in. Once the first act of power and violence is exerted -- that of linguistic terrorism -- the corporate-state complex can then attack those who challenge its legitimacy with appropriate ferocity and repression.

The main threat facing the citizens of the US and, indeed, of the entire globe, is the US government, the leading terrorist menace on the planet. From Nicaragua to Chile, from Vietnam to Iraq, from Iran to Indonesia, the US terrorist state has overthrown dozens of independent or democratically elected governments, systematically violated human rights, massacred tens of thousands of people at a time, aided and abetted fascist governments and juntas, and sought by every means possible -- be it markets or bullets -- to dominate the entire planet.

For those with vested interests in exploiting animals, Jerry Vlasak is a menace and extremist. For those fighting for a sane, just, and nonviolent world, one that extends basic rights and justice to animals, he is a champion of liberation. And perhaps he is an augur of a dark future to come, where the civil war between those hell-bent on destroying life and the planet and those intent on stopping them erupts into the kind of violence that has been a part of modern liberation movements. As of yet, the animal liberation movement has no John Browns or Nat Turners, and it is a remarkable testimony to the restraint of activists who know the horrors and true extent of violence that human sadists inflict on animals.

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1. "Dr. Jerry Vlasak Replies to Media Libel," http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2004/07/295293.html

2. "Violence against sealers OK: activist," http://stjohns.cbc.ca/regional/servlet/View?filename=nf-vlasak-seals-050419.

3. "Ted Nugent to Fellow NRAers: Get Hardcore," http://apnews1.iwon.com//article/20050417/D89HEBO00.html?PG=home&SEC=news.

4. "FBI Investigating Radical Animal Welfare Group," The oxymoronic reference to "radical animal welfare group" is a good example of how confused much media reporting on animal rights struggles is, conflating, in this case, conservative welfare approaches to reducing animal suffering within the limits of the law with the illegal tactics and abolitionist philosophy of the ALF.

5. "American Militant Extremists," http://cfrterrorism.org/groups/american_print.html.

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