Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?

Book Review – June 014

Best, Steven & Nocella II, Anthony (edts.) Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals (New York: Lantern, 2004)

Reviewed: Foreward ‘Illuminating the Philosophy and Methods of Animal Liberation’ by Ward Churchill (p. 1 – 7) and Introduction ‘Behind the Mask: Uncovering the Animal Liberation Front’ by Steven Best & Anthony J. Nocella II. (p. 9 – 65)

Since the publication of Peter Singer’s iconic Animal Liberation in 1975, the academic study of animal rights and its related issues has become a burgeoning field. Whilst developing, the area of study has largely been resigned to a limited scope of interconnected scholarship; namely philosophical – in establishing the grounds for rights, physiological or “cognitive ethology” (p. 55) – in establishing what faculties non-humans possess and anthrozoological – understanding the history of human and non-human relations. Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? seeks to progress the discussion, addressing a gulf that is highlighted between academic animalist advocates and grass root activists,1 and offering an analysis of perhaps one of the most controversial, interesting and as Churchill claims “least understood” (p. 2) aspect of the animal rights movement – namely those that engage in explicit illegal activity to further their cause. Polemical in approach, and belligerent in terminology, Terrorist or Freedom Fighters? synthesises historical reference, philosophical discussion and political theory in an attempt not only to contribute to the wider, popular discourse but also to establish and encourage a just path of action.

In their introduction Best & Nocella establish the skeleton arguments of the issues to be explored in further chapters by a number of different academics, activists and others who would gladly accept both aforementioned labels. Essentially these are moral and strategic debates around the use of illegal actions, historical analysis of such actions, the relation between such activists and other social movements and wider debates around the nature and constitution of violence and terrorism. For Best & Nocella, what underpins these debates is a philosophy of radical politics that is at heart anti-capitalist, anti-state, at times anarchistic, and deeply rejecting the anthropocentric social norms of the “domineering values, mindset, identities, and world views of the human species.” (p. 12) The actions that stem from such thinking are therefore in an asymmetrical conflict with the hegemonic powers of the “corporate, state and mass media” (p. 11) and in turn have radical implications for humanity. In the long term they see that:

The struggle seeking freedom for other species has the potential to advance rights, democratic consciousness, psychological growth, and awareness of biological interconnectedness to higher levels than previously achieved in history.” (p. 14)

Yet their reasoning is not always so abstract. One particular point of interest is their example of female activists engaged in the ‘semi-legal’2 activity of hunt sabotage. They state that “[t]he empowering ability of direct action is particularly important for women because it provides a potent vehicle to subvert traditional gender roles” (p. 19) before quoting a source that argues that such activities create “new conceptions of gender” (p. 20) by combining the “desirable” aspects of femininity such as compassion and empathy with the rejection of its associated passivity or obedience.

Whilst it is clear that the subject of this book is the praxis of militant animal liberationists, and it is refreshing to see such an attempt that does not give heavy coverage to Regan, Singer, Ryder et al. The axiomatic use of animal rights philosophy means that this book is largely of internal interest, or at least to those with certain sympathies, despite Churchill claiming readers:

regardless of their pre-existing political perspectives, will find themselves holding far more in common with the most militant animal rights advocates then they’d previously imagined. The logic… is, in a word, compelling.” (p. 2)

Given the supremacy of the law in social discourse, the little space given – essentially two short paragraphs – to establishing the grounds for the rights of animals (anti-speciesism based around subjectivies of sentience) restrict the strength of their arguments’ resonance. In a whole part dedicated to uncovering what lies behind ideas of violence and terrorism (p. 30 onwards), Best & Nocella turn common definitions against those involved in the exploitation of non-humans. They argue that if property damage is violence then by definition the wilful destruction of the environment and ecosystems is too, if property damage causes metaphysical harm then “it pales in comparison to what industries inflict on animals in the speciesist Gulags…” ( p. 32) Any suggestion otherwise then has a speciesist basis. This all hinges on the assumption that humans and non-humans, as well as the wider biosphere they exist in, are directly comparable without exploring any critiques of this idea that may exist. However, such arguments express a broader critique of contemporary social values which are not only anthropocentric, but biased in favour of the corporate-capitalist state. This is a challenge to the concept of law that criminalises in the most sensationalist (through the use of terrorism and extremism legislation) fashion the smashing of a window of a fur shop, yet legitimises the smashing of say, a mouse’s skull within the confines of a laboratory.

The inadequate establishing of grounds for significance, coupled with their bellicose use of such grave points of comparison as the holocaust in Nazi occupied Europe could perhaps alienate an outsider exploring the social movement for the first time. The frequent use of the holocaust not only to make a comparison with humanity’s treatment of non-humans, but as a basis for justifying breaking the law seems underdeveloped and poorly explained. Whilst such a comparison is not without foundation, and has been made perhaps most profoundly by the Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer who survived the death camps,3 the inclusion of such an example to structure said discussions lacks an exploration of the context of the historical, cultural and societal importance of such a period of recent history. At times the use of such reference seems provocatively flippant and at others naively understood. Best & Nocella conflates such tropes of the Holocaust as ‘freedom fighters’ and ‘gas ovens’ to give one historically incorrect example: According to them it was the “Jewish anti-Nazi resistance movement” that “liberated war prisoners and Holocaust victims and destroyed equipment – such as… gas ovens…” (p. 23) Whilst I by no means wish to down play the heroic contribution of such partisan fighters in defeating the scourge of fascism, the orthodox historical understanding is that the concentration camps were liberated by the belligerent combatants of the Allied armed forces.

This is not the only time where their reasoning is let down by a lack of empirical evidence. Despite giving a broad chronology of significant militant actions, it is clear that little attention has been given to actually profiling the activists involved. Without reference they assert “many” of the activists are “anarchists” (p. 18) before revealing their lack of accreditation with the sentence:

A given ALF cell is probably unaware of the identities and activities of other cells.” (p. 24, emphasis added)

It must be remembered that the grass roots animal rights movement that such direct action groupings are part of is politically a broad church and this can be seen most recently with classic rock guitarist, (former) Conservative voter and monarchist Brian May leading opposition to the badger cull.4 Regardless of this critique, such allegations open the ground for a debate around the nature of establishing political credentials: does someone become an anarchist through explicitly identifying with the label or following the theory of classic thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin for example, or as Best & Nocella suggest, taking positions on such radical concepts as animal rights and engaging in actions that further such causes?

All in all, despite its flaws, Terrorist or Freedom Fighters? is a book that deserves some attention because of the wider philosophical and political issues it raises. Whilst the way in which the arguments are made are at times simplistic and at others problematic, the position they come from of a radical, wholesale re-evaluation of norms, values, politics and culture is worthy of serious critical evaluation. Given the subject matter of the book, namely the militant underground of the contemporary animal rights movement, and its current paucity in scholarship Terrorist or Freedom Fighters? is a bold effort in instigating historical, political, philosophical and cultural analysis of those that have traditionally favoured the anonymity ‘behind the mask.’

1 In a chapter published in a different volume, philosopher Elisa Aaltola suggests that there remains a division between academic work in regards to animal rights and the public or popular activism that it inspires. She believes this dichotomy occurs in the framing of the two debates; with the academic discussion focussing on questions related to the moral status of animals, whilst the public one revolving around issues of “crime”. For further information see Aaltola, Elisa, ‘Differing Philosophies: Criminalisation and the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty Debate’ in Ellefsen, Rune et al. (edts.), Eco-Global Crimes (Surrey: Ashgate, 2012)
2 I use the term ‘semi-legal’ to make a distinction between activists that engage in activity that might through circumstances fall fowl of the law or whose legal status is unclear, hard to determine or subject to debate as opposed to activists of groupings such as the Animal Liberation Front that explicitly conspire to commit serious illegal actions. Examples of the former would include civil disobedience campaigns, hunt sabotage in which civil laws such as tresspass are transgressed, and as Best & Nocella reference so called ‘open liberation’ groups – those which rescue animals such as hens from battery containment whilst causing as little damage as possible in attempt to gather publicity and put a personal face to activism.
3 In his novel The Letter Writer Singer writes “In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.” The phrase gave title to a study by Charles Patterson that compared the way non-humans are treated with the way Jews were treated by the Nazi regime. For me information see Patterson, Charles, The Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust (New York: Lantern, 2002)
4 Whilst there is no suggestion that May himself has engaged in illegal activities he has courted media controversy other the recent culling of badgers by describing the act as ‘genocide’, calling for the ‘removal’ of the minister fronting the cull, and claiming that the cull could ‘bring down’ the current government. He has also offered his support to those involved in disrupting the cull.
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