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by Natasha Lennard |
July 15 2015
Let's do a thought experiment. You're walking down the street on a sweltering
summer's day and you pass a car in which a dog is trapped. The animal is visibly
suffering in the heat, panting, and collapsing; it seems close to death. You
know you can easily free the dog by forcing open a door or smashing the window.
Do you do it? Even if you don't know who owns the car, or the dog? I'd venture
that a good many of you value the dog's life over the sanctity of an intact
window. It's arguably a moral obligation to save the suffering animal. A
new law in Tennessee, which makes it legal to break into a car to save an
The legislation -- an extension of the state's Good Samaritan laws -- is
straightforwardly sensible and commendable. It's thus of note that it stands at
radical odds with the legal status quo when it comes to valuing animal life over
property. Damage private property to save one animal, you're a good Samaritan.
Damage private property to save hundreds or thousands of animals, then you're a
When I first learned of the new Tennessee law, the first of its nature in the
country, my thoughts wandered swiftly to Kevin Olliff and Tyler Lang. Lang and
Olliff are two California animal rights activists,
facing charges under the dangerously overreaching Animal Enterprise
Terrorism Act (AETA). The men pleaded guilty in federal court to vandalizing an
Illinois mink farm in 2013, releasing 2,000 minks into the wild. Their act was
not a highly efficient one, to be sure: many of the minks were later killed by
traffic, and most were recaptured. Some remain free. But Olliff and Lang are not
being punished for tactical failures -- it is property damage (reportedly of up
to $200,000). It takes no logical acrobatics to see that the moral calculus of
freeing the minks is different only in scale to freeing a dying animal by
breaking a car window. In both cases, the animals face a torturous death.
Lang and Olliff are currently awaiting sentencing. Based on previous examples
of animal rights activists convicted under AETA, they can expect lengthy prison
terms. While the average sentencing for a violent offense is around seven years,
Marius Mason is serving a 22-year sentence for arson and property damage aimed
toward targets in the fur industry and genetically modified crop research. No
one was hurt.
The categorization of vandalism as terrorism in these cases is steeped in
ideology -- like most every application of the "terror" label. In 2001, the FBI
classified the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front
(ALF) as domestic terror threats. In 2006, Congress passed AETA, targeting a
wide range of political activity in the name of animal rights as "terror"
activity. In the years since ELF and ALF's early 90's formation, no single human
or animal has been killed or injured through their actions. It makes sense to
speak of "terrorism" here, only insofar as the actors had political aims. Such
an argument would only pass muster if all crimes committed with political intent
were deemed terror activity. Patently, they are not.
Before national security narratives spun radical Islam into the font of ur-terrorism,
eco and animal rights terror were a primary focus of FBI fear mongering. In
2005, the FBI asserted that environmental "extremist" actions were among the
"most serious domestic terrorism threats." The era was dubbed the Greenscare,
and -- as Olliff and Lang's terror charges highlight -- the draconian targeting of
such activism has not ended.
The new Tennessee law, while only a fleeting news item, is interesting insofar
as we can use it to tease out the legal system's larger moral failings. That
little law stipulates that private property can be legally damaged by civilians
to save an animal's life (if it can be shown to be in imminent mortal danger) --
similar Good Samaritan laws with regards to saving human life exist in a number
of states. Of course, the new legislation is no precedent setting shift that
will justify property damage in the service of animal welfare. For this to be
the case, US justice would have to recognize that which has been brought to
light again and again: the inhumane treatment of animals at fur farms, factory
farms and animal testing labs. Instead, state houses have passed so-called "ag-gag"
laws, criminalizing the collecting of images and video from factory farms for
Tennessee's Good Samaritan law extension is the anomaly; in most every other
case, property takes precedent, and especially in the case of major industry. We
have here something like the ethical thought experiment put forward by
philosopher Peter Singer, similar to the one in my introduction. He asks that
you imagine walking home and you see a small child drowning in a shallow pond.
You can save the child, but will ruin your shoes in the process. Most people
wouldn't think twice before saving the child. Now, what if the drowning child
was very far away, in a foreign country perhaps, but it would be equally within
your ability -- with no more personal cost -- to save that child's life. The
obligation to do so is surely the same. Singer notes, "we are all in that
situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of
people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a
very small cost to us."
Of course there are lived, felt, and systematically upheld differences between
seeing a drowning child near you, or a dog in an overheated car while you walk
past, as opposed to planning to save tortured monkeys in cosmetics testing labs,
or starving children a continent away. There's a somatically marked difference
when suffering is directly in front of you. Vast apparatuses of power work to
alienate us from broader systems of suffering and cruelty in which we all play a
part under capital. Singer doesn't reject this, but simply asserts that we fail
to live up to the moral obligations we purport to have, when we say without
question that we would save the nearby drowning child, if we can't extrapolate
beyond immediate experience.
The thought experiment works on the assumption that each child's life should be
valued the same. The real world fails this premise miserably. Equally, while
there are many political and practical reasons why a law would be passed to
permit property damage to save a dog dying in a car, but not thousands of
animals in cruel captivity, any application of consistent ethics would justify
both. As if the scales of justice were able to find such balance.