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Are You The Terrorist Next Door

By Charlotte Laws

01 February, 2007

I was an ordinary American until November 27, 2006 when I became a terrorist or more accurately what I call a “stand-by terrorist.” Perhaps I cannot truly own this newfound nickname until the government decides to prosecute me for word crimes, if that day ever arrives. Until then, I just think of myself as being on stand-by, just as are most--if not all--Americans, whether they realize it or not.

You may wonder how words can amount to a terrorist act in the land of the free and home of the outspoken. It is not widely known, but Congress recently passed legislation called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which can be used to prosecute civil disobedience and speech as “domestic terrorism” when an animal-related business loses profits and property. The Act also protects corporations that pollute and destroy the environment.

You may ask, what does this have to do with me because I’m no nature fan or animal lover? Well, it could eventually have very much to do with you because the AETA—a natural child of the Patriot Act—is likely to be the first of many assaults on the social justice movement in favor of corporations and other moneyed interests. If you think you may want to use your free speech someday to criticize something, anything, then you had better be very concerned.

You should also be concerned about whether law enforcement protects you from the Bin Ladens of the world or fritters away your hard-earned tax dollars investigating pacifists. The American Civil Liberties Union says the FBI uses “counterterrorism resources to monitor and infiltrate (nonviolent) domestic political organizations that criticize business interests and government policies.” An FBI special agent recently told me that planting undercover agents at legal, peaceful events—with hopes that they will somehow learn about illegal activities--is a favored tactic of the bureau.

What are the parameters of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and who could be tangled in its web, slapped with prison time and branded a terrorist? Could Oprah Winfrey--the beloved and successful talk show host—and her former vegetarian guest, Howard Lyman, be prosecuted as terrorists if they were to repeat anti-beef comments made to Winfrey’s 15 million viewers in 1996?

It is indeed possible because the AETA is overbroad, vague and subject to the whims of law enforcement, as evidenced last year when six young, New Jersey website operators became the first individuals convicted on “animal enterprise terrorism” charges. The young people were part of the Stop Huntington Cruelty (SHAC) campaign, which targeted the Huntington Life Sciences (HLS) animal research labs. The website operators did nothing more than assert their First Amendment rights: they posted videotape of tortured dogs inside HLS and reported the legal and illegal handiwork of activists, which eventually caused the corporation to lose profits and to be dropped from the New York Stock Exchange. The FBI were unable to catch the underground activists, so they targeted the website operators, who are serving up to six years in prison for their speech.

If the government fails to catch a thief or saboteur, should it be allowed to pursue the CNN reporter who delivers the news? Or an outspoken op-ed columnist? Or six kids from New Jersey with a website? The AETA ignores Shakespeare’s recommendation, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” potentially stigmatizing a “speaker” with the most heinous, post-9/11 label in America: terrorist.

In 1996, Oprah Winfrey invited ex-cattle rancher Howard Lyman to talk about Mad Cow disease on her television show. Lyman knew first-hand how cows—even diseased ones—were fed being to other cows and how their diets were supplemented with ground-up dogs, cats and road kill. He explained the meat production process, and Winfrey offered that she would never eat another burger. The audience cheered. On the following day, cattle futures plummeted, and the financial disaster was labeled the “Oprah Crash.”

Estimated losses to the beef industry were $10 - $12 million, and a group of cattlemen filed a lawsuit against Winfrey and Lyman under a Texas food disparagement law. They wanted compensation for loss of profits. Winfrey and Lyman won, but only after spending over a million dollars on legal fees. In his book, Mad Cowboy, Lyman says that those who sued “apparently believe that the First Amendment… was not meant to be interpreted so broadly as to allow people to say unpleasant things about beef.”

If Winfrey and Lyman made these comments today, and viewers took to the streets, embarking upon civil disobedience, vandalism, even breaking into factory farms and rescuing frightened death row cows from slaughter, could the pair be held liable as AETA conspirators? It is entirely possible.

But nothing this extreme needs to occur because the penalty section of the AETA explicitly states that a person can violate the law and go to prison even if there is no property damage, no loss of profits, no fear to any persons, and no injuries. In other words, if Lyman were to say to Winfrey, “Gee, I hope someone rescues those poor tortured, cows before slaughter,” his comment alone could be interpreted as a violation of the AETA, more specifically as a “conspiracy to interfere with the operations of an animal enterprise.” Without a transcript from the show, one cannot know what casual exchanges floated between Winfrey and Lyman that day. It may seem far-fetched to envision the pair in prison, branded terrorists—especially since Winfrey is affluent and popular--but it is not far-fetched within the parameters of this poorly drafted legislation, which leaves much open to interpretation by law enforcement and the court system.

America is about nothing if it is not about fairness and free speech. The AETA does not comport with this image. It is unjust and unconstitutional, and it interferes with the prosecution of real terrorism against the American people.

Once we faced a “red scare”; now we are bombarded with a “green scare.” The time has come to ask yourself: Do you really want to be on stand-by or do you want to take a stand?

And are you now, or could you someday be, the terrorist next door?

Charlotte Laws, Ph.D. authors a chapter of the 2006 book, Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of Mother Earth. She is a Commissioner and a Greater Valley Glen Councilmember in the Los Angeles area. Her articles have appeared in Newsweek, the Los Angeles Daily News and E the Environmental magazine. Her website is www.CharlotteLaws.org

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