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The Animal Zealotry That Destroyed Our Lab
In the weeks thereafter, our attackers and their allies kept up their campaign. There were press conferences by local agitators, freedom of information requests, midnight phone calls, a well-publicized visit by a nationally known pro-ALF speaker whose message was that more attacks were needed. And then came the magazines. They started as a trickle, but soon my mailbox was deluged with dozens catering to every taste: Canoe & Kayak, Guns & Ammo, Fit Pregnancy, Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords. It's simple but ingenious: tear out those little subscription cards, apply a label, and send it in. No hassle, no mess. In total, nearly 450 subscriptions were directed at us, 160 to me alone. Funny? Perhaps, unless you consider how you would respond to such an onslaught, including the invoices and, ultimately, the credit agencies that followed.
When we learned that a Senate panel would be addressing the issue of animal rights extremism in May, we thought that some relief was imminent. Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League have been keeping an eye on the growing violence. Critics have pointed out financial donations, overlapping personnel and supportive public statements that raise questions about a possible relationship between above-ground groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and fringe groups like ALF. We hoped that such evidence had accumulated to the point that a concerted and bipartisan effort might finally affect their formidable fundraising apparatus. We were sadly disappointed.
We were encouraged that the president of our university had been called as a witness and that our experiences of the past several months would receive some high-level attention. Unfortunately, the hearing quickly devolved into a partisan disagreement. Incredibly, the senators seemed more interested in protecting their favored activist groups from scrutiny than in determining which groups actually posed significant threats to the lives and livelihoods of law-abiding citizens. Most galling were the comments of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, who seemed miffed that his time was being wasted on such fluff. Incredulous of the testimony provided by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), in which violent animal rights and environmental extremists were identified as among our most serious domestic terrorism threats, Lautenberg asked facetiously who the next target would be: "Right to Life? Sierra Club?" Then, he inexplicably proclaimed himself "a tree hugger."
I later made several attempts to contact Lautenberg about his comments, via fax, phone and e-mail, but never received a response.
I was a victim of a violent crime once before. While on break from college in the early 1980s, I was sitting in my parents' home in Chevy Chase reading a book when, suddenly, I looked up and found myself staring into the barrels of two snub-nosed revolvers. The intruders tied me up and robbed the house, then left silently. As traumatic as that event was, its effect on me was fleeting. I was angry, yes, but I did not feel terrorized. These home invaders clearly did not hate me for who I was or what I did. They did not issue a communique declaring that others should attack me. They did not release a video to force me to relive the indignity of the event. And they did not encourage their minions to engage in further harassments. Terrorists, no matter what their cause, seek political change through violence and intimidation. Is it essential that we label animal rights extremists as terrorists? Perhaps not, unless such a label helps us -- and especially politicians -- to better appreciate the seriousness of the threat and to marshal the necessary law enforcement resources.
Because the threat is serious. Today, scientists, clinicians and educators find themselves engaged in a seemingly endless string of pitched battles: over the teaching of intelligent design in our public school classrooms, over the availability of stem cells to treat degenerative diseases, over the rights of severely brain-damaged individuals to die. If we focus on the conventional politics that drive these conflicts -- right vs. left -- we miss the bigger picture.
In fact, what ties all of them together is a common distrust of and disdain for science, for empirically based medicine, for the value of evidence and critical analysis, and for progress in a free and open society. Moreover, and perhaps most alarming, is the adoption by certain groups of increasingly violent action to achieve their political aims. Indeed, the mounting acceptance of intimidation and violence within the anti-abortion movement eerily parallels the escalating tactics of animal rights extremists. Thus, the ideology and goals of these groups may align at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but their tactics have converged. As we know, a number of abortion doctors have already been killed, and some animal rights extremists seem to approve of physical violence as a tactic . It's only a matter of time before someone takes the next step. Whom will Lautenberg hug then?
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Blumberg is a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Iowa. He is the author of "Body Heat: Temperature and Life on Earth" (Harvard University Press) and the forthcoming "Basic Instinct: The Genesis of Behavior" (Thunder's Mouth Press).