[Editorial note from Jason Miller: Who’s Afraid of Jerry Vlasak? Not TPC! I am proud to announce that Dr. Jerry Vlasak has joined our editorial collective as senior editor of animal liberation!]
By Dr. Steven Best
Dr. Jerry Vlasak is known for many things. He is a trauma surgeon in Los Angeles, a militant animal rights activist, a former vivisector turned renowned critic of vivisection, a scientific advisor to groups like Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) and In Defense of Animals, and a founder and Press Officer for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office. He also has a lot of “former” roles on his resume, such as former spokesperson for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and former Board Member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Vlasak has earned the exile status of “former” for his controversial public defense of violence as a legitimate tactic for the animal rights/liberation movement to use against those who exploit animals for profit or “research.” He is also a former visitor to the UK. In summer 2004, UK Home Secretary David Blunkett, always acting in defense of the vivisection industry so important to the British economy, saw it fit to ban Vlasak, along with Pamelyn Ferdin, from again entering the UK because of his controversial exercise of free speech rights. In effect, Blunkett’s action elevated Vlasak from a mere (US) “domestic terrorist” to the more menacing status of “international terrorist.”
Justifications for Violence
Vlasak has defended the use of violence on two grounds. On moral grounds, he believes that any tactics – ranging from threats and break-ins to sabotage and even assault or murder — are legitimate given the suffering exploiters inflict on animals, the impossibility of ending their misery through legal systems that cater to exploitation industries and define animals as property, and the moral imperative to save animals from the violent clutches of exploiters. On pragmatic grounds, Vlasak believes that the use of violence would be an effective intimidation tactic and would stop numerous individuals from exploiting animals while preventing others from ever embarking on that heinous path.
Both arguments require greater rigor and detail in their presentation and response to counter-arguments, but Vlasak has put them on the table in dramatic ways. He has brought unprecedented international media attention to the cause of animal liberation as an underground, illegal but totally valid means of defending innocent animals from their violent oppressors. When Malcolm X said black liberation must be won “by any means necessary,” he was not advocating violence as a proactive tactic but rather reserving the right of self defense to black people in a situation where cops are more likely to violate than protect their human rights.
Similarly, when Vlasak urges animal liberation by any means necessary, he is asserting the right of animals to self defense. But since they cannot defend themselves (except for instances such as where elephants or tigers justly kill their trainers), humans must act on their behalf. And if violence is needed to save an animal from attack, then violence is legitimate as a means of self defense for animals. If one likes, this could be called extensional self defense, since humans are acting on behalf of animals who are so vulnerable and oppressed they cannot fight back to attack or kill their oppressors.
What I call extensional self defense mirrors penal code statues in California and other states, known as the “necessity defense.” A defendant can invoke this defense when he or she believes that the illegal action taken was immediately necessary to avoid immanent and great harm to someone, and the urgency and desirability of avoiding the harm clearly outweigh the wrong of breaking a law, as well as the harm that would have resulted had the action not been taken. Certainly, the necessity defense could be used to justify unethical and unwarranted acts of violence, but clearly the principles of law and ethics do not always overlap and acts of civil disobedience, sabotage, and even violence in certain cases may have a strong rationale.
Vlasak appeals to situations in human society where violence is legitimate as a means of stopping greater violence or a method of self-defense. He argues that to dismiss the use of similar arguments in defense of animals is sheer speciesism, as he himself draws the logical conclusions others – including the vast majority of people in the animal rights movement – cannot or will not draw. Vlasak simply says what many are thinking or what logic dictates apart from the constraints of speciesism. Vlasak is also somewhat unique in the animal rights movement in his ability to situate animal liberation struggles within the larger historical context of past human liberation struggles. Vlasak underscores the hypocrisy of those who condemn attacks on property but condone the appalling violence inflicted on animals. He exposes the inconsistency where people rail against the ALF as “terrorists,” even though in thirty years of operation they have never harmed a single human being, while ignoring what animal exploiters do to animals and the many occasions they have harmed and even killed activists.
One can see Vlasak (along with Paul Watson, Rod Coronado, Kevin Jonas, and others) as an example of “the transition of the animal rights movement from compassionate to menacing,” as the anti-animal rights people say. Or, one can see him as a vivid indicator of a planetary eco-crisis where increasingly activists defending animals and the earth are forced to adopt more militant positions and tactics to effectively fight corporate exploiters. For they will destroy the earth before they relinquish their control, and while Rome burns one finds just too many fiddlers in activist movements.
Demonizing the Doctor
The demonization of Dr. Jerry Vlasak began once his remarks from a question and answer session following his talk at the Animal Rights 2003 convention were widely distributed over the Internet by advocates of violence toward animals who were shocked anyone would challenge their monopoly on violence. When asked about his views on the use of violent tactics to achieve animal liberation goals, Vlasak replied:
I think there is a use for violence in our movement. And I think it can be an effective strategy. Not only is it morally acceptable, I think that there are places where it could be used quite effectively from a pragmatic standpoint.
For instance, if vivisectors were routinely being killed, I think it would give other vivisectors pause in what they were doing in their work - and if these vivisectors were being targeted for assassination, and call it political assassination or what have you, I think if — and I wouldn’t pick some guy way down the totem pole, but if there were prominent vivisectors being assassinated, I think that there would be a trickle-down effect and many, many people who are lower on that totem pole would say, “I’m not going to get into this business because it’s a very dangerous business and there’s other things I can do with my life that don’t involve getting into a dangerous business.” And I think that the — strictly from a fear and intimidation factor, that would be an effective tactic.