Thursday, November 18, 2004

Animal Rights Activists Excluded As Terrorists

Dr. Stephen Best of UT El Paso performed yeoman's service earlier this year helping that city's successful efforts to pass (pdf) a resolution opposing the USA-PATRIOT Act. At the time, he didn't know he had a personal, vested interest in the matter. Just months later, though, he found himself banned from travel when the British government accused him of aiding terrorists, but not Al Quaeda.

Dr. Best and two other U.S. animal rights activists, trauma surgeon Jerry Vlasak and Los Angeles activist Pam Ferdin, were sent "Minded to Exclude" letters barring them from attending the 2004 International Animal Rights Conference in England in September. The Brits claimed the three provided "intellectual justification" for terrorism, because they backed the Animal Liberation Front, and "support the destruction of industrial properties engaged in the animal research field." Check out his account of events. In a letter to the British Home Office, Dr. Best defended his views, but did not back off his political positions:

I support the ALF, but I do not advocate violence in the sense of causing physical harm to another human being. Because they attack the property of animal exploiters, and never the exploiters themselves, I consider the ALF to be a non-violent organization. Just to be clear, I am not a member of the ALF. I am a philosophy professor who writes about, and often expresses support for, social justice and liberation movements

It is true that I have provided an “intellectual justification” for the ALF, but then again so does any modern democratic constitution or bill of rights, so did J.S. Mill, Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., along with anyone who promoted concepts such as rights or justice that can be used on behalf of the ALF. Moreover, the ALF and other direct activists hardly need or await my justifications to act, so I don’t quite see how my words have inflammatory potential.

Ultimately, Dr. Best was granted passage to England, a favor for which he said he felt somewhat guilty because Dr. Vlasak and Ms. Ferdin were denied the privilege. Vlasak addressed the audience remotely, though, and Best posts the text of his comments (MS Word doc).

I personally have little sympathy for the animal rights cause, and even less for destruction of property as a political tactic. I have great respect, though, for the freedom for philosophy professors and everybody else to speak their mind, even if what they have to say violates the sensibilities of the majority.

The tales of Drs. Best, Vlasak and Ms. Ferdin show that "mission creep" has already overtaken the War on Terror -- real terrorists bomb skyscrapers and passenger trains, but this is the crap they're worried about.


I probably should have Googled these guys before I posted this, but here's a couple of links to the reasoning why Vlasak and Ferdin were rejected by the Brits. This industry group appears to be the source of the most virulent accusations against them. Best clearly is the moderate of the three. Vlasak's statements are extremist and offensive, but also vague and theoretical. I post them so readers may judge for themselves whether the sentiments expressed, in and of themselves, amount to support for "terrorism."

That said, the rhetoric in question strikes me as very similar to extremist pro-life rhetoric justifying assassination of doctors because of "millions of dead babies," etc. The radical tactics adopted by the Animal Liberation Front in England also remind me quite a bit of the targeting of individual doctors by Operation Rescue and fringe anti-abortion radicals. Like assasinations of docs by pro-life extremists, such tactics likely sacrifice long-term public support for short-term goals. For me, the line to draw is simple: Punish those who commit violence against person or property -- any activist engaged in civil disobedience, after all, should expect to be arrested and punished -- but as for public speech, adhere to Thomas Jefferson's dictum that error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.

1 comment:

John Azelvandre said...

This post piqued my interest. I agree with you entirely that freedom of speech much be protected, and I appreciate the Jefferson reference. American citizens need to be reminded that the present political regime is violating the spirit of the founding fathers of this country.

What really got my attention was Dr. Best's support for ALF. In my opinion, destruction of property is indeed terrorism, as the purpose of the attacks is to intimate and frighten. How, for example, is it different than burning black churches, with no one present to be hurt? It is not a critical part of the definition of terrorism that people are actually killed. I would be very surprised indeed to find any words of Gandhi, Mill or Martin Luther King, Jr. that could support such activities.

Perhaps some ALF supporters could come forward to explain themselves further.