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Why Does the Govt. Treat Peaceful Enviro Activists More Harshly Than Extremists Who Aim to Kill?

Author Will Potter explores how environmental and animal rights activists concerned with civil disobedience and property destruction are labeled domestic terrorists.

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The other simultaneous tactic is to push for new laws that go even further. The most important example is the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which passed in 2006. It took an already an already vague and broad law called the Animal Enterprise Protection Act and expanded it so much that it could be used to target non-violent civil disobedience as terrorism.

So you have these two things going on -- ambitious prosecutors, and then ambitious corporations and politicians -- not that they're necessarily working in lockstep all the time but their combined efforts are what are really dangerous because all of it is in line with people's personal self interests. The prosecutors want a victory to show their relevance and to show a victory in the war on terrorism. The politicians want a victory to show that they're relevant to corporations and deserve their support. As a result, we're getting some pretty outrageous court cases.

BS: In the book, you write about the discrepancies in public rhetoric between different types of activists. Why do you think some violent extremists, like people who murder abortion providers and bomb clinics, are treated as less of a threat by the FBI than less violent environmentalists who don't harm living beings but may engage in property destruction?

WP: What we've had is a complete inversion of reality in a lot of ways because the most violent, politically-motivated crimes -- for instance, by the anti-abortion movement, militia groups, Aryan Nations, KKK -- meant to instill fear in the general public to push an agenda -- in other words, terrorism -- are not being labeled terrorism, either through media campaigns or in the courtroom or in legislation. Meanwhile, groups that have never actually harmed a human being in more than thirty years of so-called radical actions and extremism -- according to their opponents -- are the number one domestic terrorism threat.

As part of my work, I went through Homeland Security documents and FBI documents and one thing that really stood out was that, actually in the FBI annual terrorism reports, it does not list violence by anti-abortion extremists or any of these groups -- Aryan Nations, tax protestors, or people who have murdered human beings, sent anthrax through the mail, or flown planes into buildings. In fact, in the FBI's report after September 11, it said in the first five years after 9/11, every act of domestic terrorism was committed by animal rights and environmental groups. In that same time period, crimes of physical violence [by other radical groups] were occurring that didn't receive that label.

BS: Tell me about some of your personal safety and security concerns as someone who both reports on and is involved in heavily monitored, aggressively prosecuted activism.

WP: I wanted to talk about this a lot in the book, and in fact, in some ways, a main character in the book is fear because it's there in every courtroom, in every interaction; it's kind of behind the scenes in every component of this story. For me, it's not something you think about -- and this was something I heard from everyone I interviewed for the story as well -- you just have to go about doing your work.

Now, you'd kind of be out of your mind if you didn't, at some point over the years, say, "Hey, all of this terrible stuff is going on. The FBI has come to my door. Maybe I should think about whether people are paying attention." And, it's unsettling to find information about my speeches and articles in counterterrorism documents.

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