Monday, May 04, 2009

Are we all terrorists?

As many of you have perhaps already heard, the animal rights’ community reached a new milestone this week when Daniel Andreas San Diego was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list (you can read about it here). San Diego is the first “domestic terrorist” to make the list, as well as the first animal rights activist. Without engaging the complex question of whether or not direct action to liberate animals is justified, I have two points to make.

The first, of course, is that the placement of San Diego on the FBI most wanted list is completely ridiculous. In the press conference they held for the announcement, Special Agent Charlene Thornton stated that “Mr. San Diego and those like him are every bit as great a threat to the peace and security of the United States as any foreign terrorist.” This assertion is patently inane. San Diego planted two bombs in a deserted office building and set them off at a time when the building was assuredly unoccupied, causing minor damage and no injuries.

The issue of whether or not actions like Diego’s are effective or justifiable is a prickly one, but whether you think this guy is a deranged misanthrope or a modern-day abolitionist, it’s clear he’s no Osama Bin Laden. While I realize that we’re not all utilitarians here, I think that most of us would be willing to agree that killing three-thousand people is worse than killing zero. Even making a comparison closer to home, it is clear San Diego is not on par with, say, Timothy McVeigh, or any other right wing militia group that has no compunctions about killing human and non-humans alike. That point, though, has been made more effectively by others. Will Potter, at, has spent years chronicling how anti-property “violence” by environmental and animal rights activists has been blown completely out of proportion. Indeed, Potter suggests that the timing of the announcement about San Diego was probably politically motivated.

The more significant thing I want to argue here, though, is a bit less obvious. It starts with another article about alleged terrorists that details how the United States used the torture technique “waterboarding” 266 times on two Arab terrorist suspects. While San Diego and the two victims in this case – Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed – might share the label “terrorist,” as I pointed out above the similarities pretty much end there. Moreover, we in the animal rights community aren’t really supposed to care about cases like Zubaydah and Mohammed’s. After all, groups like PETA – through partnerships with conservative groups and right-wing pundits like Pat Buchanan – have consistently rejected the idea that social justice issues that do not involve animals fall into their purview. Indifference to these issues is not just a product of a few organizations, though: sociological research into the animal rights movement has consistently found animal rights activists to be some of the most single-minded single-issue activists out there.

What I think that San Diego’s case shows, though, is that animal rights activists can ignore the happenings of society at large only at their own peril. Commentators like Will Potter at are keen to argue that the animal rights and environmental movements are being singled out and targeted, through legislation like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Honestly, though, I think Potter is wrong. What happened to San Diego – as well as groups like the SHAC 7 who were involved in more explicitly non-violent behavior – is emblematic of a society that is deeply repressive at large.

I am often told that vegans need to present themselves as non-threatening. While to some extent this is a warning against vegans covering themselves in tattoos and piercings that are off-putting to everyone else, I think that admonition – which has a lot of currency in the movement – has deeper significance. I believe a lot of animal rights activists want to convince everyone else that we really are just in it for the animals, and we’re not going to challenge anything else. And maybe that’s what some activists want: a vegan “utopia” where animals are left unharmed but everything else – capitalism, consumerism, American international arrogance – remains the same.

Personally, I think such a society would be no utopia at all. We would do well to remember that Nazi Germany had the most pro-animal laws of any modern Western country. As I have argued, animal rights activists like the SHAC 7 are undermined more broadly by our country’s anti-terrorism and anti-crime hysteria. But more than that, I think the principles we ought to stand for – equal consideration, respect, dignity, and sustainability – are under attack both for humans and non-human animals.

I submit, then, that if every single person in the world went vegan tomorrow, we as animal rights activists should not rest a minute, but should immediately dedicate ourselves to other problems. Society needs an overhaul, and I think that animal abuse is only one symptom of much deeper problems.

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