The Animal Liberation Front and Intimidation

On Tuesday October 18 2005, a member of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) rang a hotel in Anaheim, California. A pharmaceuticals conference was taking place at the hotel. One of the delegates was Steve Ruckman of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a company which uses animals in research and testing. A communiqué from the ALF dated October 25, which includes the warning “Associate with HLS and we will ruin your life,” reports the conversation this way:

“ALF: Hello, I stayed in Room xxx recently and think I left something behind.

Concierge: What is that?

ALF: A bomb. You’ve allowed HLS to come into your hotel, now you will pay the price.

Concierge: What was that?

ALF: If Steven Ruckman from HLS takes the stage, everyone dies. Have a good day.”

Not a conspicuously philosophical moment, one might think. But the communiqué can be read on the website of the North American Animal Liberation Press Office (NAALPO) – an organisation which is entirely separate from and independent of the ALF, but which publicises its activities. One of the co-founders (in December 2004) of NAALPO is Steven Best, a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso. At the time of that communiqué he was a press officer for NAALPO himself.

At the end of August, the Home Office declared it was banning Steven Best from the UK. Best had been planning to travel to Britain to join other animal rights campaigners in celebrating the closure of Darley Oaks Farm (which bred guinea pigs for research), but the home secretary, Charles Clarke, citing the government’s crackdown on “preachers of hate” in the wake of the July 7 bombings, denied Best permission to enter the country.

Was this an infringement of Best’s academic freedom and right to free speech? Or can philosophers legitimately be restricted if they are judged to be publicising and defending groups that threaten, intimidate, and harass people?

This wasn’t the first time the Home Office was concerned about Best: it considered banning him in 2004 (see TPM 28). On that occasion, however, though the Home Office did ban three other US animal rights activists – Dr Jerry Vlasak, Pamelyn Ferdin and Rod Coronado – they decided not to exclude Best. “I was somewhat embarrassed for not being militant enough to be considered a threat,” he wrote of the decision.

Thus permitted to enter, Best attended the International Animal Rights Gathering 2005 at a secret location in Kent on July 17. The Sunday Telegraph reported him as saying there:

“We are not terrorists, but we are a threat. We are a threat both economically and philosophically. […] We will break the law and destroy property until we win. We are abolitionists. We don’t want to reform them [vivisectionist companies], we want to wipe them off the face of the earth. We will fight, and die if necessary, to free the slaves.”

Some five weeks later, on August 23, the owners of Darley Oaks Farm in Newchurch, Staffordshire, announced that they were closing down because of intimidation by animal activists. The farm had been breeding guinea pigs for medical research for more than thirty years, and the owners had been subjected to a six year campaign of abuse, according to the BBC, which reported that the owners and people connected with the business had received death threats. The Hall family, who owned the farm, said they hoped their decision to cease operations would prompt the return of the remains of Christopher Hall’s mother-in-law, Gladys Hammond, which had been stolen from a churchyard in October 2004.

The Halls were subjected to hate mail, malicious phone calls, hoax bombs, and arson attacks. People who supplied the Halls were also subject to the campaign. Rod Harvey supplied fuel to the farm, and was targeted for four years as a result. He told the BBC he received threatening letters including one that accused him of being a paedophile, which was also sent to people he knew.

The Home Office cited Best’s July 17 statement –“We don’t want to reform them [vivisectionist companies], we want to wipe them off the face of the earth” – when it announced its decision to ban him. Best said the phrase was taken out of context. I asked him via email to give a correct version of the quotation, but though he answered other questions, he didn’t answer that one.

Best provides some of the philosophical context for NAALPO in an article, “The Myth of Free Speech”, on its website. He argues that the ALF does not harm anyone.

“Unlike those who torture, exploit, and kill animals for profit and dubious ‘research’ purposes, the ALF does not fit any viable definition of terrorism. They will destroy the property of animal exploiters in order to weaken or eliminate their capacity to harm animals, but in over 30 years of action, the ALF has never harmed one of these exploiters.”

But if being threatened and intimidated is a “harm” then the ALF does appear to have harmed people. Take for instance Cassandria Smith, a veterinarian at Los Angeles Animal Services. NAALPO published an ALF communiqué on September 17 which stated:

“we hope Avery Smith likes brunettes, b/c 2 black hair ladies of the night were recently sent to the home of Cassandria ‘Dr. Death’ Smith [here they include her home address] at 5 in the morning. All along with several hundreds of dollars worth of pizza and a coroner to collect the body. That was just night one, The second night brought a taxi to the door step every hour on the hour starting at one. On night three her name and number was smeared online as a call girl service. that Friday night a party was thrown at her house with out her foreknowledge. Last but not least a ‘gangbanger’ looking for a ‘gangwhore’ was sent. Be careful Smith. the next night, might bring us. resign bitch now alf”

Sending a “gangbanger” to her house seems like an action that could lead to straightforward physical harm, quite apart from the psychological and emotional harm of such tactics.

Best told TPM last year, “’Because they attack property, and never life, the ALF is a non-violent organisation; non-violence is their core value. It is, consequently, no mistake that in over three decades of action across the globe, no human animal exploiter has ever been injured or killed.”

But again, as with “harm,” this raises the question of what is meant by “injured”. It is at least arguable that being badly frightened can be both harm and injury. In fact on November 8 the Pentagon issued a new directive on Defense Department intelligence interrogations, as the Washington Post reported, “mandating that all questioning of detainees in US military custody include ‘humane’ treatment and banning ‘acts of physical or mental torture.’” If mental torture is an accepted category – accepted enough to be explicitly banned by Pentagon officials – then mental harm and injury seem like reasonable categories too. I asked Best about this issue, and whether he had any worries about the threatening language the ALF uses in its press releases.

“First, I have no responsibility for these press releases at all, do you understand the function of the press office?” he replied. “We simply post the releases and do no more than a mainstream newspaper would in publishing them. As for the ‘violent’ character of the language, that depends on one’s definition of violence, obviously. The ALF commitment to non-violence is a vow to never cause physical injury to any animal exploiter, they do not define property destruction as violence, nor do they consider threatening language to be violent. The main point here to emphasise is that speciesist norms and laws categorically bar obscene injuries and death inflicted on billions of animals every year from the definition of violence, whereas destruction of property to bring justice to an oppressed group that cannot be attained through the legal system always is considered violence. I suggest we look at this problem from the other side, from the perspective of the animal, rather than the animal exploiter.”

The claims that NAALPO has no responsibility at all for what it publishes and that it functions just like a mainstream newspaper are both highly questionable. That aside, Best’s response does not answer the question why the ALF does not consider threatening language to be violent, nor does it really grapple with the issue of the possible harm – the mental torture – caused by threats and intimidation. The moral philosopher Roger Crisp told me, “I do of course think that if we are using ‘violent’ in the ordinary way, then the activities of the ALF could not be described as ‘non-violent’. Serious damage to property can be violent. But I presume that Best’s point is that there is a big moral difference between those who seek to damage property alone, and those who seek physically to harm individuals. The difference isn’t all that clear, since damage to property can be very distressing, and distress is a form of harm.”

Best suggested I read his article “Behind the Mask”, which is available on the website, as a source for his views on this subject. He there analyses the issue this way:

“While the ALF renounces physical violence against human beings, it also rejects the claim that destroying property is ‘violence’ (see below). The ALF is grounded in the principle that laws protecting animal exploitation industries are unjust, and they break them in deference to the higher moral principle of animal rights… To be consistent to its principles, the ALF and other direct action groups must abide by the belief that however righteous their anger, no one must ever be harmed in the struggle for liberation of others; only property is to be damaged as a necessary means to the end of animal liberation. Despite zeal for its cause, the ALF is thus unlike radical anti-abortionists who kill their opponents, and the vast differences should never be conflated.”

Not killing opponents is certainly an important difference compared to groups that do, but there is a lot of territory between not killing people, and not harming them at all. It is possible to refrain from killing people, and still harm them. If even the Pentagon concedes (however reluctantly, after media reports have exposed “pressure” techniques used on terror suspects) that mental torture is neither an empty category nor permissible, surely professors of philosophy don’t want to lag behind.

In a more recent article, “Banned in the UK”, Best says, “It is important to emphasise that I am not a member of the ALF, that I have no connection to the ALF, that all of my own work for animal rights is strictly legal, and that I have never advocated or endorsed violence against anyone.”

As far as I have seen, it is true that he has never advocated or endorsed violence against anyone, and yet, in defending “illegal actions necessary to win justice and freedom for animals” he describes them incompletely, omitting to mention the more personally frightening, mental-torture-causing actions.

Best further says, “I define terrorism as any intentional act of violence toward an innocent sentient being in order to advance an ideological, political, and economic agenda. It is a strange kind of terrorist who has never injured a single person, who is compassionate toward the suffering of others, and who risks his or her own freedom to save another from harm, violence, and death.”

But again, that depends on how one defines “injury” and “harm”, not to mention “compassionate” and “suffering”. A definition of harm that excludes the effects of fear, intimidation, threats, harassment, stalking and the like seems surprisingly narrow. One way to see this is via a simple thought experiment: imagine that the same tactics were being used on abortion doctors and people who worked with them or supplied them with clean linens. Or on civil rights campaigners, or gays, or human rights workers, or Médecins Sans Frontières , or women’s rights workers, or union organisers. The thought is far from outlandish, because just such tactics in fact are used on all those groups. It would be interesting to know what Best would think of that thought experiment, but unfortunately he opted not to answer my question on the subject.

Best told TPM last year, “It is a moral imperative to first pursue peaceful methods of change to bring about justice for an oppressed group; if these channels are blocked, however, it is a defensible and legitimate alternative to pursue violent means of struggle to bring justice to an oppressed group. The reasoning here, as you will find in some of my articles, also is similar to ‘Just War’ theory, which analyses two key conditions where violence is legitimate and/or necessary.’”

Whether or not Best’s fine distinctions stand up to scrutiny, there are good reasons to believe they are genuinely held rather than smoke screens. Indeed, a few days before this issue went to press, Best resigned his role as NAALPO press officer because, as he told me, of “criticisms I have of my colleague Dr Jerry Vlasak defending assassination in public forums.”

However, in what he went on to say, it is clear that this does not mean he is against violence against persons in principle.

“I believe there are numerous cases where violence in defence of animals is legitimate, just as for humans, but I have never taken the step from defending it philosophically in distinct cases (such as where the cause is just, all non-violence alternatives have been explored, and innocent lives are under attack) to advocating it, unlike Jerry who has taken this to a very public forum in the US Senate and on the “60 Minutes” TV program. All tactics and ideas should be discussed openly within our movement, but not necessarily before the Senate and on national TV. I do not think tactically Jerry’s appearances were a good idea, nor do I believe assassinations are the tactic this movement should be exploring or advocating at this point in time.”

Is the Home Office therefore right to be worried about someone who says he wants to “wipe [vivisectionist companies] off the face of the earth” and that he “will fight, and die if necessary, to free the slaves”? It is not obvious that the worry is either irrational or unjust.

This article was first published in The Philosopher’s Magazine Issue 33.

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