Don’t send in the tanks
The Prime Minister has sanctioned deployment of the Army to protect the Pounds 18 million biomedical research facility being built in Oxford. This comes after the decision by the main contractor, Walter Lilly & Co Ltd, following concrete suppliers RMC before it, to pull out of the project to replace and update the university’s animal-testing facilities.
Animal-rights groups have opposed the development, staging protests outside the construction site in South Parks Road, and have targeted researchers and suppliers. They have also used smear tactics, inflicted damage on executive cars at Walter Lilly’s parent company, Montpellier, and used firebombs.
Earlier this year, Cambridge University was forced to shelve plans for a neuroscience research centre after a similar campaign and amid spiralling costs.
Now, the Home Office, with support from the Department of Trade and Industry, is to prepare a paper on how the Government can combat such extremism.
This autumn, City firms whose members control pension funds worth £650 billion will take matters into their own hands by announcing a £25 million bounty for any information that leads to the arrest of extremist ringleaders.
But are animal-rights activists “terrorists” as many, including ministers, scientists - even journalists - have suggested?
Certainly, since September 11, 2001 such groups have perpetrated more attacks in mainland Britain than al-Qaeda. And the numbers are rising rapidly. In the first four months of the year, there were 54 attacks on people’s homes and 117 arrests. The US activist Jerry Vlasak is on record as saying that the murder of scientists would be an “effective tactic”.
Such extremists are not in the same league as those who, some hold, may seek to develop and use weapons of mass destruction. Nor are their attacks as gratuitous as the Madrid bombings. On the whole, like political terrorism in the past, they target particular individuals rather than the public at large.
But such differences miss an important commonality shared with the new terrorism of today. This is that, like al-Qaeda or its more numerous sympathisers, extremist animal-rights activism reflects the profound anti-humanism within contemporary society.
Their misanthropic, anti-modern, anti-Western outlook is almost entirely Western in origin. Dealing with such views could therefore offer the authorities some hope in their wider efforts to combat the war against terror. The problem is that, as with this broader conflict, there has been a kneejerk response aimed at securing society from the outside rather than winning the argument from the inside.
In many ways, terrorism is best seen as the failure to win a political argument. By short-circuiting or bypassing this process, those who engage in acts of terror reveal their true contempt for ordinary people. But in this regard, the various authorities - scientific, political and corporate - have reacted rather like the purported terrorists.
The reluctance of large multinationals to comment on the situation is telling. By failing to promote a debate as to how we benefit from, and why we should be in favour of, animal experimentation, they - together with a Government supposedly committed to dialogue - miss an opportunity to truly engage with the public.
Without this debate, the authorities lack real resilience in the face of action taken by a handful of activists and cave in too easily.
Already, much has been made of the fact that the new research facility will not increase the number of animal experiments conducted, as if this were the problem. Others suggest that more legislation along the lines of antisocial behaviour laws is the answer.
In fact, restricting the freedoms of the few, rather than winning the argument with the many, leads only to a degradation of democracy, equality and freedom to the detriment of all.
First published by Times Higher Education Supplement, 30 July 2004