Are You the Terrorist Next Door?

Charlotte Laws articles website official

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.    

charlotte laws
Charlotte Laws

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 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.”

Charlotte Laws' three dogs
Charlotte Laws’ three dogs

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 were to make these comments today, and viewers hit 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 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.

Just as the AETA chills speech, it has disturbing ramifications for those who commit slightly illegal misdeeds. The Act can transform misdemeanors into federal crimes, and it can turn ordinary Americans—who, for example, post illegal signs or engage in graffiti—into domestic terrorists.

Let’s assume a high school senior enters a national science fair, and his project involves decapitating live mice. His mother objects to the experiment as cruel and immoral, but the son ignores her. She takes matters into her own hands by stealing the mice and placing them in a loving home, then smashing the remainder of the project and throwing it in the trash. Science fair projects are specifically protected under the AETA, as are vivisection labs, factory farms, slaughterhouses, zoos, furriers, and rodeos. The mother has intentionally damaged her son’s animal-related property, which means the U.S. government may arrest her as a terrorist and throw her in jail. 

Let’s take another case. A small boy is murdered, and his older sister is devastated. Because law enforcement officers fail to read the killer his rights and bungle other aspects of the case, he goes free. A year later, the sister discovers the killer owns a horse boarding facility in a neighboring state. She drives to the location and paints his fence with the words, “He murdered my little brother. Don’t board your horses here” in attempt to ruin his business and warn customers about the danger. The girl has intentionally caused damage to an animal enterprise. Under the AETA, her graffiti can be prosecuted as a terrorist act.  

As a final example, a journalist writes an article about combating the AETA. He suggests peppering the country with signs that read “ALF.” “ALF” is an acronym for the Animal Liberation Front, a group that has vandalized companies that use and kill animals. When “ALF” is scribbled on a fence, building or sign, the FBI is automatically called to investigate. This is routine because the bureau considers the group the number one domestic terrorist threat, even though the ALF has never injured a human or animal.

Sammy the dog

At some point, it is likely an animal enterprise owner would play “the fear card.” A butcher, for example, might claim to be frightened by an “ALF” placard adjacent to his shop, alleging an impending attack by angry animal rights activists.   

It is a violation of the AETA to intentionally induce fear (of bodily harm) directed at those associated with an animal enterprise, even when no property is damaged. The “victim”—or the butcher, in this case—gets to determine what constitutes fear. It would be easy for him to convince others of nefarious intentions since everyone knows animal advocates would like to put butchers out of business. Posting illegal signs is common in most neighborhoods, such as when advertising garage sales and political candidates, yet fines are rarely imposed. In the case of “ALF” placards, the “graphic artists” could be arrested as terrorists. The journalist who originated the idea could also be at risk.      

It is important to know that AETA terrorism charges cannot be brought against someone when the “target” is unaffiliated with an animal enterprise. If the son’s science project had involved no animals, if the murderer had owned a bicycle shop instead of a horse ranch, and if the illegally posted signs had advertised an estate sale, the FBI would not be called. This demonstrates how the AETA violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution, which states that all people must have equal protection under the law.

Why should biomedical corporations and their executives—as well as other animal industries (that offer hefty campaign donations to Washington politicos)—be provided with a special law? Aren’t there more (or equally) deserving “targets” in need of activist protection, such as abortion clinics, anti-union employers, gay-run businesses, and houses of worship? Should there be an “Abortion Clinic Terrorism Act,” a “Union Employer Terrorism Act,” and a “Gay Community Terrorism Act,” among others? Or would these niche laws further impede efforts to identify real terrorism, as the AETA does? 

There have been over 13,000 incidents against abortion clinics and doctors since 1977, including seven murders. There have been over 2,100 acts of union violence between 1991 and 2001, including bombings, shootings and near fatal injuries.

In 2004 alone, there were over 4,500 racially motivated incidents in America, while there were another 1,480 based on religious bias and another 1,460 based on sexual orientation. Animal and environmental groups have committed far fewer acts, yet they are pinned with the “terrorist” tag, while those who shoot abortion doctors or burn down synagogues are perceived only as felons.

By the same token, it is unfair to drag a mother off to prison as a terrorist due to bad luck, in that her son decides to embark upon an animal project. If she had destroyed his chemistry vials, she would not be facing terrorism charges. Her compassionate response to animal abuse should make her a hero, not an Al-Qaeda operative. It is dangerous to dilute the word “terrorism” so it loses all meaning, so it describes the most caring and justice-loving members of our society, and so it theoretically applies to the entire citizenry.

The AETA may lead to consequences its originators did not foresee. It may embolden aboveground activists who no longer need to limit their activities to that which is legal. After all, they are viewed as terrorists either way. Why should they cheer from the sidelines when they can run with the ball?   

Charlotte Laws

Inequitable and oppressive laws can propel pacifists into action, as depicted in the movie, Catch A Fire. The film relates a true story about an apolitical black man who is wrongly accused of being a terrorist by South African authorities in 1980. After enduring arrest and interrogation, he comes to the realization that it is only right to be a “terrorist,” so as to combat the entrenched apartheid of the day. He becomes a rebel fighter, planting an incendiary device at an oil refinery. Ironically, the government—convinced it is keeping him under control by choking him with the heavy hand of the law—wakes him up to injustice and ignites him into action. Animal liberation is no less a noble cause, and a similar result could be expected. Who could be next to catch a fire?   

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?

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


Published in the Los Angeles Daily News on April 1, 2007, Counterpunch on January 26, 2007, The Tolucan Times on March 21, 2007, and Countercurrents magazine on January 31, 20007