In America, Rescuing a Piglet Makes you a Terrorist But Shooting Up a Concert Doesn't

What is terrorism? According to the FBI, animal activists who stole two piglets from a farm were terrorists. As of now, Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 people at a country music concert in Las Vegas two weeks ago, has not been labeled a terrorist by the federal security organization. 

In a viral story posted on The Intercept, journalist Glenn Greenwald details an account of federal agents investigating animal activists and scouring farm-animal sanctuaries to find two missing piglets that  allegedly had been stolen from a farm. The FBI devoted such resources to finding these two piglets because their alleged theft and the capturing of undercover videos of the farm’s conditions count as terrorism.

Why is the piglet theft classified as terrorism, but not the Las Vegas shooting? The distinction is rooted in the definition of the term. In spite of the emotions the word “terrorist” might elicit, the definition is not “mass killer” or “Muslim extremist” or “very bad person.” The legal definition of terrorism is “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property in order to coerce or intimidate a government or the civilian population in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

The Las Vegas shooter, who carried out the most fatal shooting in modern U.S. history, was not considered a terrorist. The shooter’s brother said that Steven Paddock had no political or religious affiliations. Even if he did, he didn’t make them known or demonstrate that he was trying to accomplish a political or social goal. No social or political goal, no “terrorist” label.

The piglet rescue, carried out by activist group Direct Action Everywhere, however, hews closer to terrorism. No person was physically harmed in the animal activism, and a rudimentary search turned up no such instances of violence against people in the pursuit of such causes. But the definition of terrorism includes property. Stealing a piglet is “the unlawful use of...violence against property.” Increasing animal rights and welfare is a “political or social objective.” Ergo, stealing animals from farms and bringing them to sanctuaries, then posting undercover videos of the farm, counts as terrorism.

Many animal rights groups are government-recognized charities, but others have committed crimes that caught the attention of the government. The Animal Liberation Front, or ALF, is an anarchist group with no formal leadership and anonymous members who engage in illegal actions that they would call “direct action.” The FBI has specifically cited ALF and the Earth Liberation Front as terrorist groups.

You may have seen a fictionalized version of the ALF in the Netflix film OKJA. In the film, the characters, donning black clothes with “ALF” written on them, tell a truck passenger to buckle his seat belt, declare that they are not terrorists, then crash into his vehicle in order to stop it and free the animal inside. The ALF members' mission in the film is to rescue a hippopotamus-like genetically engineered pig from slaughter.

Such fictionalized operations are not unlike something the real ALF would do. In January, the FBI sentenced an animal rights activist to 21 months in prison for freeing minks from fur farms. In 2006, a firefighter burned down a horse slaughterhouse. Looking through a timeline of their actions, the most recent events the ALF claimed responsibility for include burning down the home of a farmer who was convicted for animal cruelty; burning down a clubhouse; and spraying pink dye on fur minks. ALF targets animal research labs, fur farms, meat farms, trucks, slaughterhouses and anything that they feel contributes to animal suffering and death.

In 2008 the FBI wrote, “Together, eco-terrorists and animal rights extremists are one of the most serious domestic terrorism threats in the U.S. today.” (The post includes a disclaimer at the top that the information may be outdated.) The author writes that animal and ecoterrorist groups have, since 1979, committed more than 2,000 crimes resulting in damages of over $110 million.

The U.S. is so concerned with animal rights extremism that there is specific legislation for them: The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). No other terrorism act targets a specific ideology. The law was created in 2006 in order to expand the scope of an investigation that led to the arrest of individuals based on their speeches and internet posts. In 2006, a man was sentenced to three years for conspiracy to commit crimes under AETA based on speeches he gave, forum posts and participation in protests.

The terrorism label does not mean the crimes of the animal rights activists are worse than the crimes of the Las Vegas shooter. But it does mean the FBI is able to do more thorough investigations of people with ideologies, including regarding animals.

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