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Terrorism is the use of intimidation and violence, often against innocent people, to impel change in society. Some terrorists remain shady; society honours others. For animal rights, the most practical way to advance is on a broad front, everyone doing what they do best.
"Their number is not important, but their thought." Leo Tolstoy (1)
A Definition of Terrorism
Terrorism is the systematic use by people of intimidation and violence, often against innocent people, to impel change in society. Through terrorism a small number of people can exert a disproportionate influence on society. Massive security forces are often ineffectual when combating a few dedicated terrorists who strike anywhere then vanish to fight another day.
Terrorist organisations are small, typically with around a dozen to a few hundred individuals, occasionally a few thousand. Violent animal rights extremists are often referred to as terrorists by some politicians and news media. Since the 1970's the number of violent animal rights extremists has been growing in Britain and their approach has spread abroad, especially to countries like Australia and the United States. However, despite the news reportage they stimulate, it is said that British violent animal rights extremists number less than 400 people and draw on less active backing from up to 4,000 supporters, out of a total population of 64 million.
Background to Terrorism
Terrorism is as old as history, but the expression terrorism originated in 18th century revolutionary France. The state ordered the arrest, torture and execution of thousands of citizens during the French revolution (1789), in the period known as the Reign of Terror, to murder political enemies and impose order on society. Robespierre (1753 - 1794), French lawyer and radical political leader, is quoted as saying, "Terror is nothing but justice, prompt, severe and inflexible." Robespierre personally ordered dozens of executions and himself fell prey to the terror when he was imprisoned and guillotined.
Many people turned to terrorism after the Second World War when their nations sought independence from colonialism. Once they gained independence, however, several erstwhile terrorists became respected leaders of their country. Menachem Begin (1913 - 1992) led the Irgun, a terrorist group fighting British rule in 1940's Palestine. One of the Irgun's acts was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the central British administrative offices, killing over 90 people. In 1977 Israel elected Begin as Prime Minister. Ironically, Israel then had to deal with Yasir Arafat (1929 - 2004), himself a one-time terrorist, fighting Israel for Palestinian independence, who subsequently became President of the Palestinian Authority and a Nobel Prize winner for peace.
Menachem Begin (left) as Prime Minister of Israel in 1978 with the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, and the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat (right). (Photo from Jimmy Carter Library / Wikimedia Commons.)
Menachem Begin as a young aspiring terrorist in 1940. Photo taken by the Soviet secret police (the NKVD) and found in the secret police (KGB) archives. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons.)
So terrorists do not necessarily remain contemptible shadowy figures, even though terrorism is rejected with horror and aversion by most people most of the time. A well-known phrase is 'someone's terrorist is someone else's freedom-fighter'; somebody is or is not a terrorist depending on where your political sympathies lie. You can always justify your terrorist inclinations by appealing to philosophy. With a utilitarian attitude your doctrine would be 'better a few people should die for the sake of the majority of people'. Under a deontology viewpoint your doctrine would be 'do your duty irrespective of the consequences, whether the outcome is good or bad'.
But What Really is Terrorism?
Terrorism causes widespread public anxiety because anyone may be injured or killed. But for national governments to fight terrorism effectively they first need to know what they are fighting. Exactly what terrorism is, however, and who is and who is not a terrorist, have always eluded clear definition. What happens in actuality is that both sides in a dispute convincingly employ words like terrorism
to bring discredit on the opposing side.
So you must be careful when politicians and national bodies define terrorism. Who are these politicians and national bodies, what are their political interests and how exactly do they propose to tackle terrorism? If you are not careful they may fool and manipulate you, ostensibly against terrorism, but in reality to further their own questionable political aims. You may find yourself sanctioning laws and actions that buttress their powers but conflict with democratic society and work against your personal liberty.
Animal Extremism & Terrorism
Politicians, the news media and people with vested interests in animals sometimes accuse animal rights extremists of terrorism. Violent animal rights extremism is largely confined to Europe and North America. It began in Britain in the mid-1970's where animal rights extremists began using violent methods (for instance see illegal examples see Chapter 3, Direct Action) to make their point or intimidate people such as livestock exporters, fur traders, animal breeders and animal laboratory workers.
It is fair to say that these animal extremist activities should not be taken lightly. Some of them, like arson, carry a jail sentence and others, like setting up letter bombs and booby-traps, can cause serious injury. However, although there have been narrow escapes, violent animal rights extremists have not intentionally killed anyone with such conduct. On the other hand some animal rights activists have died while on actions (a case is Jill Phipps, see her entry, Chapter 7).
But should we label violent animal rights extremists as terrorists? It makes sense to distinguish terrorist from violent extremist in order to maintain the right level of response to their acts. Terrorists, like the Irgun and today's Al Qa'eda, do not hesitate to kill people deliberately. Al Qa'eda terrorists in 2001 hijacked four airliners in the US and used them as guided missiles to kill 3,000 innocent people. It would be an over reaction, but one often found in the news media, to lump violent animal rights extremists with terrorists.
Does Animal Rights Extremism Work?
No one can say with certainty whether direct action (Chapter 3: Direct Action) or extremism for any cause is efficacious. Discussing animal rights, Richard Ryder sums it up:
"Yet any historian knows that in some earlier reform movements little progress was made until illegal and sometimes violent acts occurred. Whether reforms would have been achieved without the direct action of the suffragists, for example, or whether they would have been achieved more slowly, are matters for conjecture." (2)
Most people might agree that extreme actions can sometimes lead to big effects. The Boston tea-party is an often cited case. Angered at having to pay taxes to the British crown without Parliamentary representation, Colonialists in Massachusetts in 1773 flung the consignment of tea, on which tax had to be paid, off merchant ships into Boston harbour. Their act developed into the American War of Independence, radically changed American society and led in 1776 to the world's first major declaration of human rights (see entry Animal Rights, Chapter 2).
Boston Tea Party, by W D Cooper, from The History of North America. London: E Newberry, 1789. (From Wikimedia Commons.)
One ingredient of the Boston tea-party was the publicity the action created. People delight in reading about excessive and exceptional human behaviour - and the modern news media deluge us with extremisms. Violence gets noticed; quiet initiatives are seldom trumpeted. Whether publicity caused by animal rights extremism is good or bad there is no doubt that it thrusts animal rights into the public conscience. Extreme direct action stirs up controversy, stimulates debate and keeps it alive. When it comes to animal rights you might therefore argue that extremism is good for animals (that is it gets publicity).
The flip side of extreme action is quietly and politely improving attitudes by education and argument, by appealing to rationality, compassion and a sense of justice, and by changes in the law (for example see Chapter 3, entries such as Teacher, Animal Lawyer, and Philosopher). This is slow work but effective in that it makes for a great and long-lasting change in people's attitudes and in most wars it is attitudes that must be won.
In conclusion, it is impossible to know the single best way to bring about a revolution in society. The most sensible means is probably to advance on a broad front, everyone doing the best they can in their own way.
(1) Tolstoy, Leo. Pima (Letters)
: 8 - 15 March, 1881, 63, 45 - 52
(2) Ryder, Richard. In Peter Singer (ed), In Defense of Animals
. 1985:77 - 88.
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