Many paradigmatic forms of animal rights and environmental activism have been classed as terrorism both in popular discourse and in law. This paper argues that the labelling of many violent forms of direct action carried out in the name of animal rights or environmentalism as ‘terrorism’ is incorrect. Furthermore, the claim is also made that even those acts which are correctly termed as terrorism are not necessarily wrongful acts. The result of this analysis is to call into question the terms of public debate and the legitimacy of anti-terrorism laws targeting and punishing radical activism.
In public discourse and in positive law many forms of illegal animal rights and environmental activism have come to be labelled as terrorism. However, analysis of the concept of terrorism, and of the actions of animal and environmental activists, reveals this to be in large part an error. Although there is a great deal of conceptual wrangling over the correct application of the term terrorism, it is often defined either in terms of the intentions of terrorist agents or by reference to the moral status of the victims of terrorist acts. I refer to these two conceptions of terrorism as the non-moralised and moralised accounts of terrorism respectively. Non-moralised accounts tend focus on the intentions of agents carrying out violent acts to strike fear as a strategy for provoking political change. To establish that an act is terrorism does not require that one make an a priori judgement about the morality of those acts. Moralised conceptions, on the other hand, include the innocence of its victims as part of the definition of terrorism. Under both moralised and non-moralised conceptions of terrorism, most violent and illegal acts carried-out in the name of non-human animals or the environment should not be labelled as terrorism. The reason for this is that under the non-moralised account most illegal acts carried out by animal and environmental activists carry the wrong intentions to be classed as terrorism. And, under the moralised account, the innocence of the objects of so-called terrorist acts can be shown to be questionable. These conclusions challenge orthodox views of animal rights and environmental ‘terrorism’. They also call into question the legitimacy of laws which target animal rights and environmental activism, particularly those which classify violent activism as terrorism, and they should cause us to think again about the terms of public and political discourse. Beyond that, the conclusions also force us to reconsider whether violent animal rights and environmental activism can be classed as morally wrong as a class of acts.Cooke argues that
Presumably, the case for labelling animal rights activists ‘terrorists’ hinges on the assumption that the targets of potential terrorism pose no threat to human beings. But why should it just be the case that only harms or threats to humans count for the purpose of establishing innocence? We would not consider a person who cruelly kicks a dog for pleasure to be innocent? Indeed, it is likely that we think the dog kicker to be non-innocent because the harms done to the dog are bad for the sake of the dog itself, and not because they illustrate poor character or make the dog-kicker more likely to harm humans.(For a fuller discussion on this issue see Cooke, 2011) The animal rights activist acts on the basis that non-human animals, like humans, have moral rights that place constraints on what it is permissible to do to them in the name of promoting some good. If the argument for animal rights is sound, then those who violate their rights are not innocent and can, in some circumstances, be said to have forfeited their own right to immunity from attack. It is therefore open to activists to challenge the innocence of their targets by reference to their direct blameworthiness or complicity in harms done to non-human animals. In the case of the dog-kicker the loss of immunity to attack springs from the right of a third party to intervene to protect an innocent from urgent and imminent threat. In other cases – where such a threat is not urgent or imminent – the apt response to a rights violation is likely to be quite different. In such cases the literature on just war theory is more relevant than that on self- or other-defence. The targets of animal rights activism are governments, private individuals (such as people who wear fur), those who cause harm directly (farmers, scientists, breeders), and those with economic interests in systems of animal abuse: company shareholders, suppliers, employees, directors and owners. In each of these cases, a causal link can be established between harms done and the targets of activism. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that ostensibly innocent people will have (or have had) their interests or property harmed by activism. The permissibility of causing harms to these people may be strengthened if complicity in harms to non-human animals can be shown. Comparing the number of people who are vegan or vegetarian (or even conscientious omnivores) to those happy to consume animal products and enjoy the benefits of animal research, and inferring from the present state of animal protection legislation, indicates that most people approve of harmful, but legal, practices towards non-human animals. Furthermore, they regularly contribute money to receive those benefits and resist proposals for radical change. The numbers of potentially illegitimate victims of harms caused by activism in protest against harms to non-human animals could thus be fairly low, and the majority or targets can be shown to be responsible to some degree for the harms protested against. However, in the case of environmental activism it is hard to see how those who cause ecological damage can be considered to be harming the environment in the morally relevant sense contained within definitions of terrorism. We might think of terrorist actions as carrying justifications couched in terms of rights violations, and whist it is possible to construct a case for ascribing rights to non-human animals, it is hard to show that the environment or an ecosystem has interests or is valuable for its own sake in a way that might ground rights. Nevertheless, there might be cases where environmental destruction threatens humans or other animals in some way. ...
However, there may be a concern that some sensitivity to the degree of complicity held by an individual needs to feature strongly in any consideration in order to prevent the range of targets for terrorist attack from being overly expansive. One might credibly think that merely standing by in the face of injustice, or simply signalling assent to a wrongful act, is insufficient to constitute a forfeiture of rights against bodily or psychological harm. Borrowing from the literatures on just war, self-defence/other-defence, and punishment theory; the strong prima facie wrongness of violence requires that perpetrators not only establish liability, but also act in a way that is proportionate. Proportionality, in this case refers not only to whether the level of force is proportionate in the sense that it is the minimum necessary to achieve the desired outcome, but also that it is sensitive to the degree of harm caused, or threat posed, by the target of violence. Making use of such considerations would restrict the strongest forms of violence to those directly engaged in unjust acts. Thus, we might draw an analogy between an unjust war and the treatment of non-human animals. In an unjust war, targets for lethal violence are standardly thought to be combatants and perhaps also those who directly contribute by producing munitions in support of it.(cf. Anscombe, 1961) In the animals case, this would make vivisectors, farmers, those who work in abattoirs, circus trainers etc. potentially legitimate targets, but would rule out those who merely support harms to animals by voting for particular political parties or enjoying the benefits resulting from those harms. In the environmental case, it would make those who directly pollute or destroy the environment liable to more significant harms than those who merely purchase products created by polluting companies. Additionally, we might ask if those engaged in harmful practices can offer convincing justifications or excuses that would render them non-culpable for their actions. If it is true that non-human animals should be considered rights-bearers, then justifications for rights-violations based on good consequences for humans will be insufficient for this.
One worry here is that the process of establishing liability for harms requires, as in just war theory, that there be a legitimate authority to make judgements of liability. If animals do possess moral rights, then the issue hinges upon whether individual agents are morally permitted to make extra-institutional judgements of liability to harm in cases of non-compliance with the requirements of morality and in the absence of a just legitimate authority. As already discussed, in cases where threats are urgent and immanent, we commonly think that agents are permitted to intervene to prevent harm, but where this is not the case the question remains open. This is a wider question on the limits of duties to bring about a just society and the issue of political violence than the narrow issue of animal rights and ecological protection and cannot be adequately addressed here.
... it is worth re-iterating and clarifying the point that the establishment of responsibility for wrong-doing does not lead automatically to the forfeiture of rights against harm. Whether an agent is liable to violence because of wrong-doing depends very-much on features of a particular case. In cases where political reform is the aim the strong prima facie case against the use of violence requires that other avenues be exhausted first and that any force used is proportionate and necessary. If we examine the tactics of animal rights and environmental activists, it is clear that they do persistently pursue other, non-violent means of attempting political change. The success of these methods has been limited, and there are reasons to believe that procedural unfairness can make, or has made, democratic channels a dead-end for animal rights activists.(cf. Garner, 1993, p. 230 and 237; Carter, 1998; Nestle, 2007) Furthermore, we can see that the level of force used so far by environmental and animal rights activists has largely been confined to property damage and threat of violence rather than actual violence.
The result of this analysis is not only to show that should we avoid labelling many forms of paradigmatic animal rights and environmental extremism as terrorism, but also to provide a partial justification for them. Of course, many other supporting reasons would need to be given in an all things considered justification. Other such factors might include: whether acts are proportionate responses; whether they have a chance of succeeding in their aims; whether the threat they seek to avert is urgent and immanent; whether non-violent methods have been exhausted; and so forth. Thus, whilst the strong prima facie case against violent activism or terrorism is maintained, it is not ruled out a priori. The importance of reassessing the moral and legal status of the more extreme forms of animal rights and environmental activism is high. The consequences of infelicitous use the terms ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorist’ can be very grave indeed. As John Hadley points out, terrorists face harsher penalties and longer sentences than criminals convicted of comparably violent non-political offences, and in addition such labelling carries de-legitimising stigma for an ideological movement and social censure for its advocates.(Hadley, 2009)