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April 2004
The Case Against Vandalism and Violence

By Tom Regan

Vandalism and violence are close cousins. Vandalism is the form violence sometimes takes when things, not people, are the direct object of destruction. Examples include breaking furniture or windows, painting houses or cars, up-rooting plants or shrubs, and trashing offices or apartments. Vandalism involves violence on a small scale.

Without a doubt, some Animal Rights Advocates (ARAs) commit acts of vandalism. Without a doubt, many people are turned off when they read about ARAs breaking a furrier’s windows or trashing a vivisector’s office, or when an outing turns violent and houses or cars are spray-painted. So let me say this as clearly as I can: the vast majority of ARAs are not into vandalism. Oh, we understand how frustrated ARAs might find Ronald McDonald’s windows or Ted Nugent’s SUV mighty inviting targets for a little extra-curricular animal rights activism. But frustration is not justification. Despite what some people say about us, most ARAs are not lawless fanatics.

Do ARAs ever go beyond vandalism? Is full-on violence ever used? If we listen to the FBI, the answer is yes. The agency estimates that the Animal Liberation Front, along with the Earth Liberation Front, “have committed over 600 criminal acts in the U.S. since 1996, resulting in damages in excess of $43 million.” That adds up to a lot of violence in the minds of FBI agents. For their part, ALF spokespersons insist that ALF’s record of property destruction is part of “a nonviolent campaign, activists taking all precautions not to harm any animal (human or otherwise).”

Violence is not limited in the way the ALF or their supporters would have us believe. Someone who sets fire to an empty abortion clinic or torches a vacant synagogue causes no physical injury to any sentient being, but to suppose that these acts of arson are nonviolent distorts what violence means. When The American Heritage College Dictionary defines “violence” as “physical force exerted for the purpose of violating, damaging, or abusing,” it does not say that the damage must involve a sentient being. We do not need to hurt someone in order to use violence against something. If the ALF uses an incendiary device to level a building, they engage in some serious violence. To speak of “the violent destruction of property” is not a contradiction in terms. Why persist in denying the obvious? In my opinion, unless or until ALF spokespersons acknowledge the violent nature of many ALF actions, everything else they say to the general public will fall on deaf ears. We never garner support for what we do if we are unwilling to admit what this is.

Many people are turned off by the violence attributed to ARAs. “Yes, I think animal rights is a wonderful idea, and I really would like to embrace it,” they say, “but I can’t abide all the violence.” Of all turn-offs, this may be the hardest for ARAs to address. For this reason, we need to take our time in exploring it; even then what I have to say is far from complete.

We begin by reminding ourselves that opponents of animal rights have crafted a strategy requiring reports of violent acts done in the name of animal rights. And their strategy requires a lot of such violence. Personally, I do not doubt for a moment that some of the violence attributed to ARAs actually is done by somebody else, possibly even thugs employed by people who themselves are employed by one or another of the major animal user industries…

Notice, too, how one-sided this discussion always plays out. On the one side, we have all the wonderful law-abiding people who work for the major animal user industries. On the other side, we have all (well, maybe not all) the law-breaking ARAs. Paragons of nonviolence on the one hand, beady-eyed flame-throwers on the other. Not only is this absurdly unfair to ARAs, it is nothing less than a cover-up of the truth when it comes to what the major animal user industries do. Think about some of the things done to animals in the name of science, to take just one example.

Animals are drowned, suffocated, and starved to death; they have their limbs severed and their organs crushed; they are burned, exposed to radiation, and used in experimental surgeries; they are shocked, raised in isolation, exposed to weapons of mass destruction, and rendered blind or paralyzed; they are given heart attacks, ulcers, paralysis, and seizures; they are forced to inhale tobacco smoke, drink alcohol, and ingest various drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. And they say ARAs are violent?

The violence done by ARAs (by which I mean the violent destruction of property) is nothing compared to the violence done by the major animal user industries, a raindrop compared to an ocean. Just because a profession is legal, perhaps even (as in the case of vivisection) prestigious, does not mean it is nonviolent. On a day to day basis, the greatest amount of violence in the world occurs because of what humans do to other animals. That the violence is legally protected only serves to make matters worse.

The Moral Argument
I am not a Gandhian pacifist. I do not think it is always wrong to use violence. In particular, I do not think it is wrong to use violence to defend the innocent (for example, to rescue children from their estranged father who is threatening to kill them). Of course, we should not use more violence when less will suffice. And we should not use any violence at all until we have exhausted nonviolent alternatives, as time and circumstances permit. Non-pacifists like me (and this includes almost everybody) don’t have to be trigger-happy anarchists, either. Morally, then, ARAs could attempt to satisfy these conditions by arguing as follows.

1. Animals are innocent.
2. Violence is used only when it is necessary to rescue them so that they are spared terrible harm.
3. Excessive violence is never used.
4. Violence is used only after nonviolent alternatives have been exhausted, as time and circumstances permit.
5. Therefore, in these cases, the use of violence is justified.

What should we say in response to this line of reasoning? If all the premises (one through four) are true, how can we avoid agreeing with the conclusion (five)? True, Gandhian pacifists can avoid the conclusion; they do not accept any violence, even in defense of the innocent. However, most of us are not Gandhian pacifists; for us, the plot thickens.

Personally, I don’t think the second premise is true of all or even most of the violence done in the name of animal rights. Why not? Because the vast majority of this violence does not involve animal rescue. The vast majority (I estimate 98 percent) is property destruction, pure and simple. In cases like these, the defense we are considering contributes nothing by way of justification.

What of the remaining two percent of cases, where violence is used and animals are rescued? For example, suppose a multi-million dollar lab is burnt to the ground after the animals in it have been liberated. Would this kind of violence be justified, given the argument sketched above?

Again, I don’t think so. And the reason is because I don’t think the requirement set forth in premise four has been satisfied. Personally, I do not think that ARAs in general, members of the ALF in particular, have done nearly enough when it comes to exhausting nonviolent alternatives. Granted, to do this will take time and will require great patience coupled with hard, dedicated work. Granted, the results of these labors are uncertain. And granted, animals will be suffering and dying every hour of every day that ARAs struggle to free them using nonviolent means. Nevertheless, unless or until ARAs have done the demanding nonviolent work that needs to be done, the use of violence, in my judgment, is not morally justified. (It is also a tactical disaster. Even when animals are rescued, the story the media tells is about the “terroristic” acts of ARAs, not the terrible things that were being done to animals. The one thing ARA violence never fails to produce is more grist for the mills run by spokespersons for the major animal user industries.)

Supporters of the ALF are certainly free to challenge my critique of ALF violence by arguing that violence is justified under different conditions than those I have given. For example, they could argue that violence is justified when the damage caused is so extensive that it puts an animal abuser out of business. In this case, no animals are rescued but (so it may be argued) some animals are spared the horrors of vivisection in a lab or a lifetime of deprivation in a fur mill, for example. However, to consider such an argument is premature. Before it merits consideration, ALF supporters will have to agree that the ALF sometimes uses violence, something which, as we have seen, ALF supporters are loath to admit.

The role of violence in social justice movements raises complicated questions that always have and always will divide activists on matters of substance, ethics and strategy in particular. It need not divide ARAs when it comes to assessments of character. I know ARAs who have spent years in jail because they have broken the law, having used violence as I understand this idea. To a person, these activists believe ARAs already have exhausted nonviolent alternatives. To a person, they believe the time for talking has passed and the time for acting has arrived.

I have never doubted the sincerity and commitment—or the courage—these activists embody. I am reminded of an observation Gandhi once made, to the effect that he had more admiration for people who have the courage to use violence than he had for people who embraced nonviolence out of cowardice. So, yes, members of the ALF are courageous in their acts, and sincere in their commitment. And yes, perhaps some of us who reject the violence they employ do so out of cowardice. Nevertheless, violence done by ARAs, in my judgment, not only is wrong; it does not help, it hurts the animal rights movement.

Tom Regan is professor emeritus of philosophy at North Carolina State University and author of numerous books, including the influential The Case for Animal Rights (1983). This essay is excerpted from Regan’s new book, Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004). To learn more, see Reprinted with permission.