Long before I came to Oxford, I had heard about Oxford’s notorious animal rights activists. They epitomized the absolute extreme to which the movement had come: “they” broke into labs, harassed professors, and even committed acts of bombing and arson. While there were many reason why my interviews for the Rhodes and Marshall were disasters, I certainly knew things were heading downhill when I was asked whether I planned to become one of “them”. The same question dogged me in the months before I came here: “You’re not going to be part of ‘those’ groups, are you?”
Students at Oxford are, somewhat unsurprisingly, even more hostile towards “them.” Numerous people have told me how much they hate it that they have to walk past protesters on the way to work, or how inappropriate they think it is that “they” show up to events like Oxford’s graduation, calling for a boycott of the university so long as it continues its massive support for animal testing. This term, I’ve been working to help found a student vegan society, but “they” are still a problem. At our meetings, newcomers always want to know: “You’re not like ‘them’ are you? You’re not going to use ‘those’ tactics?”
This Thursday, I finally saw “them” – or perhaps I should say, “her.” I was bicycling through the science section of campus and there they were – banners put up by SPEAK, the anti-vivisection group generally thought to be behind actions like the burning-down of University College’s boathouse. I have to admit, I was a little underwhelmed. Next to large banners condemning Oxford and mourning the death of a monkey named Felix, there were a few late-middle aged women, standing silently in the rain, holding signs. There were at least twice as many police there, I can only assume preventing them from breaking into those violent, dangerous actions that we all know they engage in after dark.
Sometime during the Bush Administration, animal rights protesters like these were labeled the United States’ “number one” domestic terror threat. The Obama administration has continued the trend, pandering to the right wing by promising to vigorously prosecute animal rights “terrorists,” like four people in Austin who had the audacity to chalk a sidewalk. The United Kingdom, too, has jumped on the bandwagon: after Britain declared it had become the “Afghanistan of Animal Rights terrorism,” the government began a major campaign of infiltrating and monitoring activist groups. All this policing effort seems to suggest that animal rights radicals – like those at Oxford – are a real threat.
There’s just one problem with this narrative, though: animal activists have never managed to kill anyone (although a few animal activists have been killed.) Yes, pro-AR radicals have caused some (relatively minimal) property damage, and even a few injuries. The principles of the Animal Liberation Front – the group most often associated with animal rights terrorism – are telling: point four of five is “To take all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human and non-human.” As far as I can tell, they’ve done a reasonably good job of adhering to these principles: in 1500 animal rights actions monitored by the British police, only seven resulted in injuries. Whatever your views on property destruction, I am struck by what a distant departure these actions are from what I classically envision “terrorism” to be: the use of violence against non-combatant persons to intimidate a civilian population for political reasons.
It’s impossible for me not to draw a comparison to the recent “incident” in Austin, Texas, where an anti-government crazy named Joe Stack flew a plane into an Internal Revenue Service building, killing himself and one employee while injuring a dozen others. A few friends have forwarded me his manifesto, and expressed to me how much ‘sense’ it seems to make. Indeed, while the Tea Party is celebrating Stack as an American hero, even some allies on the left seem to be convinced that Stack must not be all that bad of a guy because he denounced Congress’ failure to pass health care reform. I find this completely infuriating. Make no mistake – the only difference between Joe Stack and Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who killed 168 at a similar federal building, is that Stack didn’t succeed. And yet, the consensus seems to be that what Stack did wasn’t terrorism.
I am left wondering: what does it say when breaking into a lab to save rabbits is terrorism, but flying a plane in a building in order to kill people trying to make an living (albeit off of a system you oppose) is not? When I wake up to a New York Times front page reporting murdered abortion doctors, massacred Afghani civilians, a mass movement calling for revolutionary violence against the Obama administration, and a political class that seems concerned about none of these things, I find myself thinking: what the world could use is a few more little old ladies, standing in the pouring rain, choosing to make a statement while most would rather be inside making money or caring for their own affairs, simply because they are worried about some mice in a lab.
If “they” are terrorists, then I can only hope someday I will be labeled a terrorist too.
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Jukebox: Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name