What is a terrorist?

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The ALF rescuing Beagles from a testing lab in Britain

My last post about my friend’s brother possibly being tried as a terrorist for burning down a horse slaughterhouse ten years ago has sparked some interesting off-line debates about what constitutes a terrorist. One of my brothers (and I’m sure a couple of the others agree) insists that the members of the ALF and ELF are terrorists because their mission is to destroy property, and they have caused millions of dollars worth of damage, including burning down two SUV dealerships here in California. Here is a little background on the two groups:

The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) was classified by the FBI as a domestic terror threat in March, 2001. According to Wikipedia (although not the best source): The ELF’s mission is to use “economic sabotage and guerrilla warfare to stop the exploitation and destruction of the natural environment.” The ELF’s guidelines require that individuals or groups acting on its behalf “take all necessary precautions against harming any animal — human and nonhuman.” Their goal is to cause economic damage, often through arson. They destroy property that they believe is used to hurt animals, people or the environment. They have no leader or spokesperson. The FBI has labeled them “eco-terrorists,” and in 2005 and 2006 U.S. grand juries indicted a total of 18 activists (including my friend’s brother) on charges related to “violent acts.” However, Senator Jim Jeffords said that the “ELF and ALF may threaten dozens of people each year, but an incident at a chemical, nuclear or wastewater facility would threaten tens of thousands.”

The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) is another leaderless resistance that works to free animals from testing facilities and fur farms, etc. Like the ELF, the ALF considers itself nonviolent because it hasn’t harmed any humans.The ALF was named a terrorist threat by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in January, 2005 and has been been criticized by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), however, for its “terrorist tactics similar to those of anti-abortion extremists.” Besides burning down the horse slaughterhouse, it has set fire to a veterinary medicine research building at UC Davis, causing $3.5 million of damage and set fire to an office at Michigan State University, destroying 32 years of nutrition research.
So now the question remains: What is a terrorist? I read somewhere that a terrorist is someone who acts out against the government in order to get it to change its policies. One could argue that these groups aren’t acting out against the government; they’re acting out toward the research institutions or companies who hurt animals or the environment, and they’re doing it for a good cause.
People who DON’T think these groups are terrorist organizations ask at what point does activism become terrorism? They fear the growing threat to our freedom to speak out and act out against injustices. They wonder if someone who throws a rock at a policeman during a demonstration will be tried as a terrorist. And should there be a terrorist enhancement at all? Jonathon Paul has pleaded guilty to arson and will go to jail for two to three years nonetheless. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t the terrorist enhancement equivalent to the hate crime enhancement? Is it fair that someone who burns down a building for the fun of it will get three years in jail, while these “terrorists” who are trying to save horses will get twelve?

People who DO think these groups are terrorist organizations argue that terrorism is terrorism regardless or your motive or your skin color. Have we been brainwashed to believe that all terrorists are Islamic fundamentalists? Have we forgotten that terrorism didn’t begin with 9/11? That there are other types of terrorism? If the point of terrorism is to frighten people, isn’t that what these groups are doing–frightening people from testing animals, trading fur and selling SUVs? (By the way, when I lived in London I had a friend who worked at L’Oreal who told me they got bomb threats nearly every week from animals rights activists who opposed their animal testing.) Dictionary.com’s first definition of terrorism is “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.”

What do you think? Should Jonathon Paul be tried as a terrorist or an arsonist?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “What is a terrorist?

  1. m++

    The answer is: pre-meditated arsonist.

    Terrorist is just too loaded a term in todays world. I think there are three distinct sub-categories of terrorism that need to be made here (think of this as the difference between 1st degree, 2nd degree murder, and man slaughter):

    1) The most severe “Colossal Terrorism” — using weapons of mass destruction to attempt to destroy civilization as we know it. This would cover nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, dirty bombs, 9/11, destruction of chemical/nuclear factories, and any property damage that leaves lasting damage on the environment or human lives in the proximity.

    2) “Classic Terrorism” — instilling fear through destruction of human lives. This includes car bombs, snipers, school shootings.

    3) Property Damage only. There should be a clear distinction between someone who attacks the constitutional right to “personal property”, and someone who attempts to take human lives to make their point. If there was a clear attempt to only destroy property and no human life, then the punishment should be different.

    Lumping all of these together into one broad category and calling it all Terrorism dilutes fundamental moral differences in a way that is dangerous to our system of law. Not to say such muddling doesn’t have history — the war on drugs groups heroin and cannabis together as equivalent, while leaving alcohol off in some mass exception category… Basically, its an uphill battle to expect Americans to think through such philosophical differences in much if any detail. Not enough Platos in the world anymore, especially in the Red states that care more about personality in their leaders than how much light is on upstairs.

  2. Good suggestion! Thanks for your feedback, M++.

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