United Poultry Concerns September 18, 2005

Book Review: Terrorists or Freedom Fighters Reflections on the Liberation of Animals

Edited by Steven Best, PhD & Anthony J. Nocella II

Forward by Ward Churchill

Published by Lantern Books

Order from Lantern Books (www.Lanternbooks.com) $20 + shipping

Reviewed by Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

"Without the confrontational activists of the underground, the abolitionist movement might never have become anything more than a vast lecture hall in which right-minded, white Americans could comfortably agree that slavery was evil." – Fergus Bordewich, The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (cited in "Stealing Away," The Washington Post Book World, July, 3, 2005).

"When challenged to justify an action by a covert group, a mainstream group should reply by saying that it is unfortunate that the problem or the threat is so extreme that some people have been moved to take extreme measures to address it." – Paul Watson, "ALF and ELF – Terrorism Is as Terrorism Does," Terrorists or Freedom Fighters

Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals is a riveting anthology of writings that explores the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) from a range of academic and activist perspectives on the history, ethics, politics, and tactics of the ALF, its position within the animal rights movement and within the wider context of social justice activism both legal and illegal. Supporters link the ALF philosophically and strategically with the Underground Railroad networks that emerged in North America in the 1840s to speed fugitive slaves to freedom, and with the underground Jewish resistance militants who fought against the Nazi Holocaust. ALF critics within the animal rights movement, while generally supportive of rescuing abused animals, oppose any sort of intentional "violence," including property damage – at least until all other efforts to liberate animals from human enslavement have failed. This is philosopher Tom Regan’s position in "How to Justify Violence." A big question, though, is, at what point could the failure (or unlikely success) of animal liberation efforts be determined?

In the essay I wrote for the book, "Open Rescues: Putting a Face on the Rescuers and on the Rescued," I describe the role of the ALF as an enterprise that seeks to expose our society’s enormous cruelty to nonhuman animals. Set up to rescue individual animals from specific situations of abuse, with a view to ending all of the abuse, and to wreak economic havoc on animal exploiters with the goal of making it hard, and ultimately impossible, for the exploiters to continue doing business, the ALF also supports property damage on moral grounds. "[W]hen certain buildings, tools and other property are being used to commit violence," ALF spokesperson David Barbarash explains, "the ALF believes that the destruction of property is justified." In considering these goals I recall what Aristotle said in the Poetics about the goals of tragic drama. He said tragic drama should arouse pity and fear in the audience: pity and compassion for the victims, fear and horror directed at the causes of the victims’ suffering. Similarly, the ALF seeks to arouse pity and compassion for the animal victims (the audience in this case is the general public, including the news media and the exploiters themselves), and to instill fear of economic destruction – loss of livelihood, funding, business, and credibility – in those who profit from institutionalized animal abuse.

While Terrorists or Freedom Fighters represents a range of viewpoints, it is unabashedly partisan. Editors Steve Best and Anthony Nocella write in the Introduction: "This is a book about a new breed of freedom fighters – human activists who risk their own liberty to rescue and aid animals imprisoned in hellish conditions."

Similar to the mid 19th-century debate over slavery, in which antislavery forces argued over the use of militant action versus patient education and moral persuasion, an argument rages among animal advocates. Conservatives publicly distance themselves from ALF activities, while others, like PETA’s Bruce Friedrich, argue with much evidence and insight that ALF activities are one of the many tactics that are needed to get people’s attention to the plight of nonhuman animals. And yes, people have to be shaken up – a lot. Both Friedrich and contributor Maxwell Schnurer argue compellingly that, among other justifications, the willingness of humans to risk government surveillance, imprisonment, and even death for animals underscores the fact that animals and animal suffering matter. Such willingness increases the realization that animals deserve not only compassion, but respect. And contributor Pattice Jones points out that, despite their differences, ALF actions and welfare reforms are alike insofar as they both "seek to improve the lives of actual animals right now." Moreover, Jones says, there is "no evidence to support the idea that either ALF actions or welfare reforms in any way inhibit the long-term struggle for animal liberation."

But to those who would, at most, "tinker with the present system" of institutionalized animal enslavement, contributor Mark Bernstein asks us to consider a similar argument by a slaveowner in early 19th-century Virginia: "He rails against the abolitionists, reminding them that the agricultural industry would suffer untold economic setbacks were the practice of slavery abandoned. He reminds his idealistic, tender-hearted opponents that cheap labor is what makes the cotton industry, among so many others, profitable. Being a kind and decent fellow, he is willing to make some minor modifications. He will provide his slaves with slightly larger living quarters and not beat them as severely if they fail to give him an honest day’s work."

Other links to American slavery may be relevant, as well. For example, just as opposition to slavery was often coupled with racism among the abolitionists, who did not always hold to a standard of racial equality, so animal liberationists are often disappointingly speciesist. And while the American antislavery movement sought to convince itself that, with patient agitation, the human slave system would gradually disappear, by the 1840s and ‘50s, Southern slavery was more entrenched than ever. It took the Civil War to win Emancipation.

In the fight for animal liberation, it is heartening to learn that vegetarianism (variously defined) appears to be growing, that polls show people favoring "humane" treatment of animals, and that the numbers of animals in laboratories are said to be (don’t believe it) decreasing. But let us not forget, meanwhile, that global animal-product consumption is growing much faster than vegetarianism, reflecting worldwide human population increase and other contributing factors, that the number of animals raised and slaughtered for human consumption expands by the millions each year, that the genetic engineering of animals is in its infancy, and that the majority of animals, including untold numbers of birds in laboratories throughout the world, don’t even officially exist. How can the ALF, or anyone for that matter, hope to liberate animals on anything approaching a large scale?

Terrorists or Freedom Fighters has many ways of responding to this question and others that arise. The book is an intellectual toolkit, indispensable to the thinking advocate for whom ethical integrity and the need to act are inseparable. Going straight to the heart of the matter, pioneer farmed-animal investigator and rescuer, in Australia, Patty Mark, writes in "To Free a Hen":

Each individual life we save means the world to us and to them. Pure bliss is watching a withered, featherless, debilitated, and naked little hen look up at the sky for the first time in her life, stretch her frail limbs, and then do what all hens adore: take a dust bath! (Terrorists or Freedom Fighters, p. 210).

Revealing the faces of these birds and other animals as they are being compassionately lifted from the dead piles onto which they were thrown, the mass graves in which they were buried alive, the cages upon cages surrounding them, or the manure pits into which they fell, showing them responding to a little cup of water after all they have been through – this is what the animal liberation movement as a whole, masked or otherwise, must try to accomplish, whatever else it does. Terrorists or Freedom Fighters is a field guide that can help us go forward with confidence for animals, because we have no choice but to push on amid the politics of institutionalized terrorism and unstinted brutality that have thus far largely defined the human enterprise on earth. Gentle words and fighting words, without disruptive, illegal, even militant action, might not, in the view of many people, be enough under the circumstances.


Karen Davis is the founder and president of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl (www.upc-online.org). Her essay "Open Rescues: Putting a Face on the Rescuers and on the Rescued" appears in the book under review. In addition to many published essays and articles, Karen Davis’s books include Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry; More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality; Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey: A Poultryless "Poultry" Potpourri; and A Home for Henny. Her latest book is The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities (Lantern Books, 2005).


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