Though it received scant attention at the time, with a grand total of one Congressperson opposing and one witness testifying against it, condemnation of the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) has steadily increased since the law was enacted in 2006. Together with state-level efforts to enact so-called “ag-gag” legislation, which punishes undercover investigations and whistleblowing in animal agricultural facilities, and the extension of terrorism charges and rhetoric to cover acts as whimsical as (unintentionally) sprinkling glitter inside an office building, there is a growing sense that these laws are not about animal rights, nor are they limited to animal rights activists – rather, they affect everyone’s civil liberties. Now, though, a new indictment has brought “animal enterprise terrorism” back to its roots. It is an opportunity to reflect on what the AETA shows us about ourselves and our world.
Criticism leveled against the AETA, including a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), has largely focused on the law’s unconstitutional criminalization of speech protected by the First Amendment, which turns a peaceful picket or a boycott into a crime. All along, the government has insisted the law is not aimed at speech and only punishes illegal activity (which, of course, is already punishable by existing law).
And, in the case of Tyler Lang and Kevin Olliff, who were arraigned on AETA charges in Chicago today, the indictment does allege the kind of activity the government claims the law targets: Lang and Olliff are accused of freeing 2,000 mink and foxes from Midwestern fur farms last August.
Most readers will easily see the absurdity in saying that freeing animals from fur farms is “terrorism.” But it is important to realize that neither the AETA nor the fur industry is an aberration. While critics, myself included, have pointed to heavy lobbying by animal use industries as evidence that the AETA was a gift to corporate interests, we should remember that the overwhelming majority of our society supports these industries, which encompass not only the Fur Commission USA, but also United Egg Producers, the National Milk Producers Federation and the American Meat Institute. Lang and Olliff could easily have faced the same charges if they were alleged to have freed chickens from an egg factory, cows from a slaughter plant, or animals slated to become leather shoes rather than fur coats. These two men could have been charged with “animal enterprise terrorism” whether they were alleged to have freed animals from a factory farm or a small-scale, “humane” farm, rather than a fur farm.
A society’s strongest condemnation tends to be deployed not solely against those who commit the most heinous acts, but also against those who most forcefully oppose social norms. Sometimes – say, in the case of murder – the worst acts and our social values coincide. But when the state’s most powerful condemnation in the form of criminal law is brought to bear against those with unpopular political views, we should not only consider the excessiveness of the punishment, but also stop to examine those views themselves.
When it is perfectly legal, and often immensely profitable, to use and kill animals by the billions for almost any purpose, it should come as no surprise that laws would harshly punish even nonviolent actions that disrupt or prevent that use. The AETA defends not only corporations – it also defends a way of life, protecting our meat, dairy, and leather, our Sea Worlds and our animal circuses from those who wish to abolish that way of life. This is the inescapable context in which saving the lives of minks and foxes becomes a crime.
One thing has become exceedingly clear through the debate over ag-gag laws: animal agriculture is unbelievably violent. Every time the legislation is debated, the undercover footage it aims to squelch is aired. With more than 80 investigations inside animal agriculture facilities in the past decade, and notwithstanding the industry’s attempt to cast particular acts as extraordinary, it is clear that this violence is not limited to particular workers or an individual facility or a specific industry. Rather, violence is the very nature of raising animals for the purpose of killing and eating them – or wearing them, or testing on them.
Some of what we now view as the most abhorrent practices in our history were once widely socially acceptable – not only protected by law, but seen as unproblematic and even socially valuable – by vast segments of society. Those who first spoke out against various injustices, including those who broke laws protecting those injustices, were not only punished by the state; often, they were also ridiculed and dismissed by a society blinded by the commonality, the pervasiveness, the sheer ordinariness of profound wrongs. Looking back, it is easy to identify with the rebels, to see ourselves in those who first espoused – and acted on – beliefs that have come to be accepted as norms. Yet social sanctioning necessarily means that most people ignore, acquiesce, or remain silent on a subject.
Last August, someone risked their own freedom to free individuals they would never know and who would never come to thank them, and for glory they would only ever see if it came in the backhanded form of prosecution (though the seven subsequent fur farm raids that occurred in the United States while Tyler Lang and Kevin Olliff sat in jail awaiting bail suggest at least reasonable doubt as to whether they were the liberators).
If Tyler Lang and Kevin Olliff trade their freedom for that of the animals who were freed, let it not be in vain. Let us take a good long look at ourselves and ask what kind of society allows a fur farm to exist anyway. We don’t all need to be animal rights activists to condemn the terrorism prosecution against Kevin Olliff and Tyler Lang. But maybe we should be.