by Ward Churchill
(Forward to Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals)

The fire this time. —Eldridge Cleaver, 1969

For the past four decades, an entity loosely referred to as the “animal rights movement” has conducted an increasingly concerted series of direct actions against industries, “sports,” and scientific enterprises guilty of the confinement, abuse, torture and mass death of nonhuman beings. From physical disruptions of English fox hunts during the early 1960s to a raid upon the animal colonies of the Oxford University Laboratory in 1974, from infiltration/disruption of New York University Medical Center’s experimental facility in 1977 to the torching of an animal diagnostics lab at the University of California-Davis a decade later, from the 1997 rescue of over 10,000 mink from the Arritola Mink Farm in Oregon to the still more recent arson of a partly complete ski resort near Vail, Colorado, that was eradicating the habitat of the local lynx population, animal rights activists have engaged in several thousand noteworthy actions in two dozen countries since 1973. Along the way, they have extracted penalties from their opponents running into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Often stunning in their sheer audacity—and in the dexterity with which they’ve been carried out—these assaults upon the sites of carnage have commanded considerable public attention. They’ve also been systematically decontextualized, sensationalized, and otherwise distorted by the minions of the establishment media with the result that, although every action has been crafted in such a way that not a single fatality has resulted from the movement’s lengthy campaign of sabotage, the activists responsible are commonly viewed as “terrorists.” Hence, the methods, if not the objectives, of groups like the Animal Liberation Front, the Earth Liberation Front, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and Earth First! have been as readily condemned by all too many self-styled progressives as they have by the governmental and corporate officials most directly under attack.

To be valid, however, denunciation requires an accurate understanding of that which is denounced. And, unquestionably, those committed to the struggle for animal liberation are among the least understood of all contemporary oppositionists, not only in tactical terms, but philosophically. It is therefore fortunate that Steven Best and Anthony Nocella have teamed up to provide the present volume, providing as it does what is undeniably the most detailed and comprehensive overview of the thinking that has underpinned the sustained and to all accounts growing activism in behalf, not only of nonhuman animals, but the natural order in its entirety. One will finish reading this book agreeing or disagreeing with what is said herein, or more likely some combination of the two, but one cannot read it and at the same time remain functionally ignorant of what the animal liberationists are doing and why they are doing it. Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? is thus a perfect antidote to the falsehoods spewed on a regular basis by the likes of CNN and Fox News; it provides the basis, that is, for constructing genuinely informed opinions on its subject matter. Suffice it to say that no more can be asked of any book.

The probability is that those who avail themselves of the essays that follow, regardless of their preexisting political perspectives, will find themselves holding far more in common with the most militant animal rights advocates than they’d previously imagined. The logic employed by the movement is, in a word, compelling. It cannot be evaded even by those, such as myself, who explicitly privilege humans over other species by taking as the centerpiece of our posture an active resistance to genocide and such corollaries as racism, colonialism and aggressive war. Given that the key to the “genocidal mentality” resides, as virtually all commentators agree, in the perpetrators’ conscious “dehumanization of the Other” they have set themselves to exterminating, it follows that removal of the self-assigned license enjoyed by humans to do as they will to/with nonhumans can only serve to better the lot of humans targeted for dehumanization/subjugation/eradication.1

In sum, it is more than superficially arguable that to attack the grotesqueries of scientific/medical experimentation using live simians is to seriously undermine the psychointellectual foundation upon which the nazi doctors stood when using dehumanized humans to the same purpose at Dachau and elsewhere (and upon which the nazis’ American counterparts stand when undertaking projects like the Tuskegee Experiment, MK-ULTRA, and so on).2 By the same token, to assault the meatpacking industry is to mount a challenge to the mentality that allowed well over a million dehumanized humans to be systematically slaughtered by the SS einsatzgruppen in eastern Europe during the early 1940s, and the nazis’ simultaneous development of truly industrial killing techniques in places like Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka3 (one might look to the penal labor camps of America’s Deep South and American Indian residential schools in both the U.S. and Canada during a slightly earlier period to find counterpart examples4). The implications embodied in such connections are, of course, theoretically profound.

Among other issues raised is the manner in which those purporting to oppose a genocidal—or, in the terms posed by animal liberationists, omnicidal—reality are obliged to confront it. Can the constraints of dialogue or debate concerning the ethics and morality of genocide/omnicide really be appropriate to a context in which one side of the debate entitles itself to perpetrate such crimes even while the supposed “dialogue” is being conducted? The answer, to be sure, is—must be—an unequivocal “no.” The niceties attending this sort of civic discourse pertain only to situations in which commission of the offending course of action has yet to be undertaken or in which the perpetrators are willing to suspend their activities pending resolution of the debate. Neither of these circumstances prevailing, direct action of the sort designed to disrupt—and at an optimum halt—the process of commission is absolutely essential. In the alternative, the “opposition” is an utter farce.

That said, the question becomes that of which varieties of direct action may be warranted. The answer is to a significant extent situational; that is, determined by the nature of the offense confronted. Abridgements of civil rights—those evident under a regime of Jim Crow racial segregation (apartheid), for example—can perhaps be addressed more or less exclusively by reliance upon such methods as mass demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, and the like. So, too, problems like wage inequity and occupational safety. But is there anyone deluded enough to believe that such tactics might in themselves have been effective—and thus appropriate as a set of methodological constraints—as a means of confronting/stopping the Hitlerian genocide?5 That making condemnatory statements, sending petitions, refusing to buy German products, staging rallies/marches in protest, and/or conducting prayer vigils and other such bearings of witness to the nazi slaughter constituted all that “moral” or “responsible” persons could/should have done in response?

Animal liberationists, unlike the great majority of oppositionists in other vectors, appear, at least in principle, to have drawn the correct conclusions from these and comparable queries. To this extent, if none other, there is much to be learned from their praxis. At the same time, however, it seems to be a consensus position within groups like the ALF and the ELF that infliction of property damage upon entities engaged in the willful perpetration of omnicide constitutes the limit of legitimate response to the crimes at hand. Plainly, if there is the least merit to the above-discussed nazi analogy—which is advanced with regularity by proponents of animal rights—then the drawing of such a figurative line in the tactical sand is as arbitrary as that drawn by those who would restrict the range of responses to symbolic gestures.

The crux of the issue is revealed by the positing of another hypothetical: Given the opportunity to do either in, say, 1942, would it have been more effective/appropriate to have torched the office of Adolf Eichmann, the nazi bureaucrat whose peculiar expertise made an orderly implementation of the Final solution possible, or to have eliminated Eichmann himself?6 The answer need not be rendered as an abstraction. Instead, it is bound up in the esteem in which the Czech partisans who assassinated Eichmann’s boss, SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, continue to be held even by those inclined most vociferously to revile the ALF/ELF brand of “ecoterrorism.”7 Similarly, the degree of valorization now all but universally accorded the so-called June Plotters—i.e., the group of German military officers and diplomats who attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler himself in 1944—speaks eloquently to the conclusion which must be drawn.8 Neither a principle or an analysis, after all, is more valuable than the consistency with which they are applied.

Whether and how such unification of principle, analysis and action should—or can—be actualized in the present setting are matters that Terrorists or Freedom Fighters only begins to address. Nonetheless, and to their everlasting credit, the authors whose work is assembled herein lay much of the informational/conceptual groundwork necessary for such questions to be interrogated on a rational rather than merely visceral basis. Best and Nocella are to be commended for having brought this collection of voices together. As well, Lantern Books for having displayed the courage to make the result available to a general readership.

Notes

  1. For explication of the quoted phrases, see Robert Jay Lifton and Eric Markusen, The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat (New York: Basic Books, 1988), and Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (New York: Harper & Row, 1984). Also see the section title “Yea Rats and Mice or Swarms of Lice,” in my Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997), 169–78.
  2. Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 1986); James H. Jones, Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (New York: Free Press, 1981); John Marks, The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate” (New York: W.W. Norton, [2nd ed.] 1991); Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain, Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond (New York: Grove Press [2nd ed.] 1992).
  3. See Richard Rhodes, Masters of Death: The SS Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002); the section titled “Killing Center Operations” in Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1961), 555–638.
  4. The death rate in the nazis’ notorious Dachau concentration camp was 36 percent. At Buchenwalld, it was 19 percent. At Mauthausen, generally considered to be the harshest of all nazi facilities other than outright extermination centers like Auschwitz, it was 58 percent; Michael Burleigh, Ethics and Extermination: Reflections on the Nazi Genocide (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 211. By comparison, no prisoner is known to have survived a 10-year sentence under the conditions prevailing in Mississippi’s convict leasing system from 1866 inception to formal abolition in 1890; David M. Oshinsky, “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (New York: Free Press, 1996), 46. On the residential schools, the conditions in which were so abysmal that a 50 percent mortality rate prevailed among the American Indian children incarcerated therein from roughly 1880 to 1930, see David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875–1928 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995); John S. Milloy, “A National Crime”: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999).
  5. Gandhi apparently filled the bill in this regard. As has been noted elsewhere, “Civil disobedience as a strategy of political opposition can succeed only with a government ruled by conscience. In 1938, after Kristallnacht, when Gandhi advised the Jews in Germany to employ Satyagraha, the Indian version of passive resistance, he disclosed his inability to distinguish between English and German political morality”; Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews (New York: Free Press, [2nd ed.] 1985), 274.
  6. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin, 1964); Jochen von Lang and Claus Sibyll, eds., Eichmann Interrogated: Transcripts from the Archive of the Israeli Police (New York: De Capo Press, 1999).
  7. Callum MacDonald, The SS Overgruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (New York: Free Press, 1989).
  8. Peter Hoffmann, The History of the German Resistance, 1933–1945 (Montréal/Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, [3rd ed.] 1996), 263–534.