With the publication of Jonathan Safran Foer's captivating and powerful book, Eating Animals, much has been said and written about his undercover investigative work, which gives America a view inside the hidden world of factory farms.
What has not been commented on, however, is the disquieting fact that under existing federal and state laws, Mr. Foer's undercover actions -- while clearly an important public service -- are actually illegal, and what's more, they constitute acts of domestic terrorism.
Sound absurd? It should. But the reality is this:
In 2006, President Bush signed into law a little-known but sweeping piece of legislation called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), an expansion of the previously existing and equally little-known Animal Enterprise Protection Act.
With speed and lack of reflection rivaling the passage of the USA Patriot Act after 9/11, Congress pushed this animal industry-crafted law through in a single day, with only a lone dissenting vote in opposition, that of Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich.
Was Mr. Kucinich the only one to read that AETA makes into domestic terrorism any actions that physically interfere with the operation of any animal enterprise, or that cause physical or economic damage to the said enterprise, regardless of motive or reason?
Yes, you read that correctly.
Under AETA, the following actions by Mr. Foer -- all described in his book -- constitute animal enterprise terrorism:
Mr. Foer, a New York resident, illegally and under the cover of night, enters a turkey factory farm in California with an animal rights activist identified only as "C." This is interstate travel and conspiracy, and also a violation of California's own sweeping Animal Enterprise Protection Act and other laws prohibiting trespassing on, filming in, or otherwise documenting the operations of a factory farm.
Following the initial trespass, "C." -- with the clear foreknowledge and consent of Mr. Foer -- euthanizes a sick and suffering turkey chick writhing on the floor. Now we're talking conspiracy and destruction of property of an animal enterprise.
There are further actions and statements in the book that could also be interpreted as Mr. Foer interfering, or at least trying to interfere with the operation of various animal enterprises. Indeed, much of what Mr. Foer exposes stirs such moral indignation that it'd be strange if people didn't take to the streets to demand change, thereby possibly interfering with the operation of one animal enterprise or another.
For all this, our laws say, Mr. Foer could be prosecuted as a domestic terrorist. But of course he won't be. I hope. Not because what I say isn't true, but because Mr. Foer is protected by his stature as a celebrated author. Unfortunately, animal rights activists such as "C." are not so lucky.
Despite FBI and Congressional claims to the contrary, AETA has -- and is --being used to criminalize and prosecute legal, constitutionally protected activities aimed at exposing and stopping the hidden cruelties of America's animal industries.
One person who tried to warn Congress of the threat of such prosecutions was investigative journalist Will Potter, who testified about the civil liberties implications of AETA before its passage, and who continues to be the lone voice covering this issue at his excellent and eye-opening blog, greenisthenewred.com, which draws chilling parallels between the persecution of animal rights and environmental activists today and the civil rights abuses of the McCarthy era.
In 2006, six young American activists affiliated with the animal rights group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA received a combined sentence of 23 years in federal prison, simply for operating a website that called for legal protests against the multinational animal testing giant Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) and its suppliers.
After radical underground activists unaffiliated with the campaign engaged in post-protest vandalism, the organizers were arrested, charged with inciting animal enterprise terrorism, and convicted in one of the most chilling and speedy secret trials in memory, from which all press was banned.
Shockingly, the SHAC USA verdict was recently held up on appeal by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court in Philadelphia, which found that even legal, constitutionally protected activity can be criminalized in the context of AETA prosecutions.
Earlier this year, four northern California animal rights activists were arrested and charged with terrorism for protesting, chalking the sidewalk, and leafleting outside the homes of animal researchers.
The FBI continues to characterize "animal rights extremists" and "eco-terrorists" as the nation's leading domestic threats, even though not a single person in our country has ever been physically harmed by these people. Ever.
Prosecuting vandalism is one thing, but trying to characterize speech and protests-- no matter how brazen-- as terrorism should be of great concern to us all.
And the animal enterprise industry doesn't want prosecutions to stop at protests.
Several states have tried to join California in pushing for industry-hatched legislation that would make the mere act of witnessing the operation of an animal enterprise without permission an act of terrorism.
In 2007, legislators in South Carolina tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill called "The Animal Ecological Terrorism Act," which would've made merely "entering an animal or research facility that is at the time closed to the public" an act of terrorism.
Who are laws such as these designed to protect? Who benefits from a controversial and secretive industry being singled out for special protection by laws criminalizing otherwise perfectly legal activity? Especially when such activity is motivated by concern over animal suffering, public health, and environmental damage.
We, as a nation, must demand the immediate repeal of AETA and related laws, which harm both animals and consumers, protecting only the profits of huge corporations who operate behind closed doors with increasingly little scrutiny, or as they would clearly prefer it: with no scrutiny at all.