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The New Terrorists: How Ordinary American Activists are Receiving This Dangerous Label

© John Sherffius

Recently, a series of laws crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have been passed or proposed in numerous states. These laws, colloquially referred to as Ag Gag laws, are designed to punish animal rights activists who try to expose evidence of animal abuse on factory farms. The activists’ videos were very effective, demonstrating disturbing, sickening, and inexcusable mistreatment of animals that the industry has tried to defend (receiving the justified mocking of the Daily Show in response). Spurred by a series of videos exposing alarming abuse in places ranging from California to Wyoming to Iowa to Minnesota and beyond, legislators decided that it was more important to protect the interests of the corporate farmers than the interests of either the activists or the animals they sought to protect.

According to Mother Jones reporter, Ted Genoways, before the recent factory farm videos even emerged, there were efforts to squash animal activists from exposing how animals were treated in various facilities:

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“Back in September 2003, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) released a piece of model legislation it called the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act. Like so many bills drafted by the free-market think tank, AETA was handed over, ready made, to legislators with the idea that it could be introduced in statehouses across the country with minimal modification. Under the measure, it would become a felony (if damages exceed $500) to enter “an animal or research facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means,” and, in a flush of Patriot Act-era overreaching, those convicted of making such recordings would also be placed on a permanent “terrorist registry.””

The bill did not pass into law as ALEC had written it. Instead, it was renamed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and the requirement to put activists on a permanent terrorist registry was taken out. They also modified the provisions regarding photographing and videotaping animals. Then, the bill became federal law. However, later on, when the factory farm videos were released one after another, states decided to revisit the ALEC-written legislation and pass laws of their own.

But animal activists are not the only ones corporations are seeking to label as terrorists. So far, Big Agriculture has been successful in its quest to get animal rights activists who film animal abuse put onto terrorist watch lists, but Big Oil is still in the process. Recently, Bold Nebraska, a group opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline, came to possess documents showing that TransCanada, the corporation seeking to build the pipeline, has been lobbying the U.S. government to have activists against the pipeline labeled terrorists. Terrorism is supposed to be defined as acts of violence in furtherance of a political or social cause. The protesters have exhibited nothing but non-violent resistance and the kind of civil disobedience advocated by the likes of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr (and if you watch Rachel Maddow, you will learn excellent reasons to protest this pipeline). However, Nebraska law enforcement officials were briefed to consider and treat the blocking of construction equipment as no different than the bombing of a building.

But it gets even worse. Residents of Maury County, Tennessee, including the city of Mt. Pleasant, have been very concerned about the quality of their drinking water. People have reportedly gotten sick and at least once, a boil-your-water notice has gone out because of bacteria in the water. When residents raised their concerns at a meeting organized by their state representative, a Tennessee state official, Sherwin Smith, deputy director of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s (TDEC) Division Of Water Resources, told the attendees that too much complaining about their water could get them identified as terrorists.

Where are corporations and federal, state, or local officials getting the idea that activists who haven’t done anything remotely violent can be labeled as terrorists and subjected to the monitoring, prosecution, and punishments due to people who fly planes into buildings? Of course, it’s the PATRIOT act. The PATRIOT act defines domestic terrorism broadly as:

“…activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”

The watchdog of civil liberties for generations in our country has been the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). They have worried about the wording of this definition, stating “this definition is broad enough to encompass the activities of…prominent activists, campaigns and organizations.” Where they may have seemed alarmist at one point, they seem prescient now. What is equally alarming is that these stories have received absolutely no coverage in the corporate media, leaving the majority of Americans in the dark about how the PATRIOT act is being abused.

The most recent revelation is that anti-war activists have been placed on the domestic terrorist list as well. A lawsuit brought by peace activists who were spied on by military and police infiltrators over the past decade has revealed that several of these non-violence advocates were labeled terrorists. It is not hard to imagine the potency of thisin times gone by. Had it been part of the arsenal available to authorities in the late 1950s and early 1960s when African Americans began their struggles against Jim Crow segregation, it may well have been brought out and used against them if similar trends like we see today were in place. We already know that authorities were abusing their power to spy on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his allies. We know that the government infiltrated various activist groups throughout the 1960s and 70s, often agitating these groups to commit violent acts when the groups never had any intention of doing so. It is also difficult to predict going forward which groups, which activists, and which dissenters could fall under the umbrella of “terrorist” with the label being so generally applied.

It is perhaps the dissenters, activists, and civilly disobedient who see the recent revelation of the government’s NSA programs as most alarming. Lee Fang, of the Nation, reported on a foiled attempt by defense contractors who still work for the NSA to spy on left-wing organizations:

“Two years ago, a batch of stolen e-mails revealed a plot by a set of three defense contractors (Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies and HBGary Federal) to target activists, reporters, labor unions and political organizations. The plans— one concocted in concert with lawyers for the US Chamber of Commerce to sabotage left-leaning critics, like the Center for American Progress and the SEIU…— fell apart after reports of their existence were published online.”

Taken together, it is worth revisiting how the PATRIOT act is being utilized in our nation. To define who is a terrorist. To decide who gets to spy. And importantly, to decide how much power the government is granted to “observe” its citizens.

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