Redefining Terrorism

For the foreseeable future, ‘terrorism’ will be the default term immediately applied to any act of public violence. While some warned against jumping to conclusions in regards to yesterday’s tragedy in Boston—there have already been a slew of falsities reported by media outlets more concerned with breaking news than factual news—it is undoubtedly a correct use of ‘terrorism,’ be it domestic or international in intent. Unfortunately, other acts that receive little attention are being corralled under the same catchall phrase. 

Ezra Klein offered this great perspective of terrorist attacks, both locally and internationally, this morning. While reading, I noticed something odd, though not surprising, in the graph in point #5. The top two organizations responsible for the most terrorist acts between 2001-2011: environmental and animal rights activist groups Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front. 

Granted, some actions that these loose-knit cells have taken merit the terrorist citation. While their 84 recorded instances of terrorism have resulted in zero deaths, that was, at times, a matter of luck. Destroying property and burning mansions are not safe endeavors for getting any point across. 

Other acts of environmental and animal rights activism that have been dubbed terrorist are troubling. In 2003 the American Legislative Exchange Council proposed the ‘Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act,’ which would have defined terrorists as

two or more persons organized for the purpose of supporting any politically motivated activity intended to obstruct or deter any person from participating in an activity involving animals or an activity involving natural resources. 

Falling under ‘any activity’ would have been undercover taping of animal cruelty on farms. While that 2003 measure did not pass, legislation going through Congress right now—derisively called ‘Ag-Gag Bills’—are picking up where that measure left off. 

For example, California legislators are currently entertaining AB 343—introduced at the biding of the California Cattlemen’s Association—which would require anyone (exempting journalists) to turn over documentary evidence of cruelty within 120 hours to law enforcement officials. (Earlier versions of the bill stated 48 hours, as well as encouraging activists to turn over footage to the very people they were filming.) Given that it takes organizations months to mount enough evidence to make a case, this bill effectively binds the activists’ hands. Similar legislation is being proposed in six other states.  

Further confusing the line between terrorists who bomb buildings and marathons to activists who build websites in order to point out cruelty is the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which prohibits any person from interfering with companies for the purpose of damaging the operations of an animal enterprise. 

An updated version of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992, since its unanimous passing in 2006 an AETA ruling resulted in the jailing of the SHAC 7, an activist group focused on shutting down Europe’s largest animal-testing laboratory. One of those imprisoned, Andrew Stepanian, was considered an ideal prisoner until being used as a ‘balancer’ in an Illinois Communication Management Unit (CMU) that predominantly housed Muslims suspected of terrorism. As Andrew states, many of the balancers—non-Muslims sent to this facility so the jailers could avoid criticism of only detaining Muslims—were environmental and animal rights activists.

As a nation and world we are, fortunately, becoming less and not more violent. Several ‘better angels’ tales, including a group of US soldiers who ran the marathon wearing 40-lb packs who then helped survivors and a cowboy hat-wearing peace activist applying life-saving tourniquets to a man who lost both legs, have emerged. As comedian Patton Oswalt noted, ‘the good outnumber you and we always will.’

What happened in Boston was a terrorist, as well as cowardly, act. We cannot, however, carelessly affix that term to activists who are fighting for the rights of all living beings. The SHAC movement cited above was founded after footage emerged of lab employees punching beagles in the face to subdue them so they could inject the dogs with chemicals. Trying to bring such tragic instances to light is simply not terrorism.

That large-scale agricultural and pharmaceutical companies, entities often behind such proposed legislation, would even suggest that American citizens trying to combat animal torture and environmental degradation are akin to those who murder children by sticking bombs inside of garbage cans shows how removed from reality such executives are, how their own profits matter more than anything else. If we want to truly define terrorism in terms of its defined meaning— the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims—I know exactly where we should start. 

Image: Peter Kim/

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