Police at the United States Capitol put the nation at risk last Sunday. They allowed an estimated 24,000 terrorists to gather for an afternoon rally on the west lawn of the Capitol. The group was an international assembly of citizens working for animal rights, labeled ''terrorists'' three days before by Louis Sullivan, secretary of health and human services.
Sullivan, a physician who argues with a broadax more than a scalpel, said the ''animal rights terrorists'' coming to the rally were ''on the wrong side of morality.'' On the right side, Sullivan places -- besides himself -- medical researchers whose lethal experiments on hundreds of millions of animals have been carried out, until lately, with few constraints beyond amiable peer review, if that.
Sullivan's smear is part of an emerging counteroffensive being waged by those agencies or businesses whose grants and profits are animal-based. The secretary mouthed publicly what many researchers in lab coats have been grumbling among themselves for some time: animal rights advocates are anti-science fanatics, while we are selfless pursuers of human advancement.
On hand for Sullivan's terrorism speech were several appreciative research organizations as well as some nonmedical slaughterers and tormentors of animals who also see themselves toiling away on behalf of humankind: the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen's Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Turkey Federation and the National Broiler Council. A worry arises: If organized protests have lowered fur sales, can meat be next?
In medical research alone, large numbers are involved. The Department of Agriculture reported in 1988 that 140,471 dogs, 42,271 cats, 51,641 primates, 431,457 guinea pigs, 331,945 hamsters, 459,254 rabbits and 178,249 ''wild animals'' were used experimentally. That figure of 1.6 million animals, which excludes mice and rats, is an annual toll, a small fraction of the estimated 10 million creatures killed daily for food in the United States.
Until the 1970s both commercialists and medical researchers killing animals had little reason to be on the defensive. Meat was not only macho but was promoted as necessary for health, and the only people alarmed at animal experimentation were a few antivivisectionists, usually in England.
The 1970s and '80s saw a flow of books and articles on factory farming, a surge of animal rights and vegetarian magazines, new animal welfare legislation to protect creatures from carriage horses in Central Park to parrots imported from Central America. In 1980 People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had a membership of six. Now it's 300,000. In the same decade, the Humane Society of the United States grew from 160,000 to 963,000.
Sullivan's labeling these citizens ''terrorists'' on the ''wrong side of morality'' is a squeal of panic desperation. If he had more concern for the health of the public than for the health of the medical research and meat industries, he would have skipped the polarizing invective. On animal testing, Sullivan may share the prevailing research opinion that human beings can ethically subject animals to pain that would never be sanctioned for people. But why isn't he raising questions on either the practicality or effectiveness of animal testing? Was it medically necessary for the U.S. Army to pay $2.1 million to Louisiana State University to shoot 700 cats in the head to learn that the animals had post-trauma breathing problems? Was it medically effective to force primates to inhale tobacco smoke to learn that it caused lung cancer?
These are the equivalents of the Pentagon needing $600 toilet seats to defend the free world. University and medical researchers have been as artful as military contractors in enriching themselves with grants to discover the miracle vaccine always just one more animal experiment away. Or two more. Or three more.
The barbarity of using animals in painful tests aside, which is where Sullivan and friends prefer it, the objection of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals stands: ''Despite decades of animal research, no one has been cured of heart disease, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, diabetes or cancer of the colon, breast or uterus.'' Clean drinking water, food and already available medicine can prevent nearly all the 60,000 disease-induced deaths that Oxfam reports are occurring daily in the Third World.
Louis Sullivan can keep on with his axings, but too many citizens are being educated on both the ethics and uselessness of killing animals for human benefit, greed or pleasure. Changes, brought on by animal rights advocates, have come without commercial devastations. Revlon, Avon and Mary Kay have recently stopped animal testing. Each had been routinely inflicting their chemicals on animals. Revlon now advertises its products as ''cruelty-free.''
It was terrorism, all right, behind this conversion -- the fearful terror of losing money. Revlon lives. So do some animals.