The new law is chilling both in its scope and in its narrowness. It is chilling in its narrowness, because it targets a single group of political activists, namely, animal rights activists. It makes certain conduct criminal if engaged in by animal rights activists, but not criminal when engaged in by other activists, say, by anti-abortion activists. It is chilling in its scope because it now expands the the definition of ‘animal enterprise terrorism’ to include acts that result in neither fear nor economic damages nor bodily injury. What is even more disturbing is that the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act permits owners and operators of animal enterprises to engage in the very same conduct it forbids animal activists to engage in. In Part 2, I will discuss and defend these claims, but here in Part 1, I want examine the real motivation for the Act, as well as the rhetoric that allowed such chilling legislation to sail through both houses of Congress.
A brief look at the history of how this Act came to be law will unveil the actual motivation for the law. On November 4, 2005, Rep. Thomas Petri (R-WI) introduced House Bill H.R.4239, dubbed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. There were 44 co-sponsors of the bill (33 Republican co-sponsors and 11 Democratic co-sponsors). The list of co-sponsors is available here. On November 13, the House of Representatives passed H.R.4239 by voice vote.
On September 30, 2006, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) introduced Senate Bill S. 3880, an only slightly more moderate version of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. The Senate Bill S. 3880 was co-sponsored by 10 senators (9 Republicans and 1 Democrat). The list of co-sponsors is available here. On September 30, 2006, the Senate passed S. 3880 by unanimous consent. [See the Office of Legislative Policy and Analysis here for details.] The Senate version of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act is the version that President Bush signed into law Monday, November 27, 2006.
There is one striking, but revealing, difference between the original H.R.4239 and the more moderate S. 3880 (the latter of which became law), and that striking difference reveals the true motivation for the law.
The “Penalties” section of the original House bill H.R.4239 counted, as an act of terrorism:
an offense involving exclusively a non-violent physical obstruction of an animal enterprise or a business having a connection to, or relationship with, an animal enterprise, that may result in loss of profits but does not result in bodily injury or death or property damage or loss (my emphasis).This clause was entirely stricken from the version of the Act that was eventually signed into law, but it uncovers the real motivation behind the Act. The Act wasn’t instituted to protect Americans from the dreaded terrorist threat posed by rabid animal activists, it was designed to protect the profits of those individuals and corporations that profit from the exploitation and abuse of animals. That is why 75% of the co-sponsors of the House Bill and 90% of the co-sponsors of the Senate Bill were Republicans. Make no mistake about it. These Congresspersons didn’t enact this legislation to make you safer. They enacted it to make animal abusers and the corporations that profit from that animal abuse richer.
Restricting the rights of citizens to freely protest against practices that they sincerely believe to be unjust or immoral just to protect the profits of people engaged in those very practices would normally not be taken lightly in a country that values free speech and the open exchange of ideas; but couch it in the rhetoric of terror, and people will mindlessly submit to the rights-restrictions like lemmings being led off a cliff.
We have the Bush administration to thank for that. The Bush administration has deftly escalated the rhetoric of terror to such a fevored pitch that virtually any unwanted conduct can now be dubbed an act of “terror”. You don’t think so. Look again at the clause in H.R.4239 that was finally removed from the Senate version of the Act. How could anyone think that an exclusively nonviolent act of physical obstruction is an act of terrorism? How could anyone think that an exclusively nonviolent act of physical obstruction that does not result in bodily injury or death or property damage or loss is an act of terrorism? Think of the absurdity and semantic impropriety of calling such acts “acts of terrorism.” And then realize this: On November 13, 2006, the lame duck House of Representatives passed H.R.4239 by a voice vote under suspension of the rules, a procedure usually reserved for non-controversial legislation. That’s right. The House of Representatives passed the version of the bill containing the language that defines an exclusively nonviolent act of physical obstruction that does not result in bodily injury or death or property damage or loss as an act of terrorism. As I said above, the politics and rhetoric of the “war on terror” allow virtually any unwanted conduct to be deemed an act of terror, even exclusively nonviolent acts of physical obstruction that don’t result in bodily injury or death or property damage or loss.
One of the biggest travesties and biggest costs of the “war on terror” and the rhetoric that surrounds it is the stifling effect it has on dialogue and the open discussion of ideas between competing factions. If one’s opponents are “terrorists,” not only can they not be reasoned with, they aren’t worthy of the courtesy. As Eric Olive rightly notes here: “[The word] ‘Terrorist’ may be the most dangerous word in the English language, because it vilifies the opposition.”
The word ‘extremist’ runs a close second. ‘Extremist’ connotes a fanatical whacko incapable of being reasoned with. If one’s opponent is irrational, it's pointless to try to engage her in a rational dialogue. That conveniently frees one from the burden of finding out whether the opposition has any legitimate concerns. Their concerns can’t be legitimate if they are “fanatical extremist terrorist whackos.” The politics of name-calling and vilification writ large.
The rhetoric of terror has been used to “justify” the wire-tapping of America citizens' phone calls without probable cause. The rhetoric of terror has been used to “justify” human rights abuses in Guantanamo. And, now, with the successful passage of Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, the rhetoric of terror has been used to restrict the rights of animal rights activists simply to protect the profits of those industries and people who profit from the torture of animals.
The bottom line: It's time that all Americans start to question the politics and rhetoric of terror. Cherished rights are being stripped away in the name of protection from terrorism. When the rights of the few are violated, everyone should be alarmed. Using the rhetoric of terror to take away the rights of those one opposes is the first step down that slippery slope to having one's own rights stripped away.
More to follow.