Instead of feeling relieved after Wednesday's crisis at the Discovery Channel building ended without injury to any of the hostages a small group of opportunistic pundits and special interest lobbyists salivated. The day they had been waiting for for quite some time had arrived; a sick man named James Lee, with a political agenda as imbalanced as his mind had used potentially deadly violence in furtherance of what seemed to be an "environmentalist" agenda. This was not a day the special interests were preparing for with a hope to diffuse the situation in effort to save life, but rather a day they were preparing for so that when it came they could best to capitalize off the day's events and push their own niche agendas.
Immediately after Wednesday's events a special interest group representing animal industries called The Center For Consumer Freedom (CCF) issued a press release and write-up on their website connecting philosophical dots between Lee and several non-profit animal welfare, conservation groups, The Humane Society, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Wayne Pacelle and even Al Gore. After their release this narrative was either adopted in part or echoed by pundits, right-leaning columnists, and conservative bloggers eager to hop on Google news and twitter trending topics.
Even more disturbing was the mainstream media's adoption of this anti-environmental message. Thursday's UK Telegraph actually read, "Al Gore's Church of Climatism has claimed a new glorious martyr" under the headline "James Lee is Al Gore is Prince Charles is the Unabomber." Peter Roff contributor to U.S. News & World Report and Fox News took the CCF sloganeering one step further with an overbroad, unfounded, and hyperbolic article titled "Why Is the Media Ignoring Discovery Channel Gunman's Radical Views?" where he makes rambling unfounded indictments, similar to that of Lee's, against what Roff calls the "media".
"If James Lee had been a member of a Tea Party group or an activist opposed to abortion rights the national media would be in the throes of ecstasy, describing his actions as the product of some sort of loosely organized effort that should have all Americans living in fear for their lives and their liberty."
Where Roff is insanely mistaken is that it was only 7 months ago that Joseph Stack, a man with a mind equally disturbed to that of Lee's with an ideological platform that mirrored that of the Tea Party sought martyrdom as he flew his Piper Cherokee plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas killing himself, IRS worker Vernon Hunter, and wounding 13 others. Stack's actions were not reported as an act of terrorism in the press but rather as the actions of a "disgruntled man." Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo specifically said, "This appears to be an intentional act by a sole individual." Acevedo did not use the words terrorism, extremism, or attempt to reference the political motives that drove Stack to fly his plane into the building. Nor did the mainstream media relish in the "throes of ecstasy" as Roff opined, quite the contrary in fact, Stack's story had a fairly short lived stint in the news cycle.
Another stark difference between these cases lies in the media's attempts to draw tangential connections between the two men and a larger 3rd party "movement." In the case of Lee, his strange prior criminal record for human trafficking and his one man campaign against the Discovery Channel, shows that time and time again Lee was alone in his efforts. Lee exhibited the behavior of a paranoid schizophrenic in singling out the discovery channel with a list of bizarre demands, he apparently wanted the press to cover his death, and lastly he left explosives in his home as a final spectacle after he had passed. These are the calling cards of a man crying for help or attention. Joseph Stack however, made a point to not place bombs later to be found at his house, or field calls from the press while he flew his plane into the IRS building, instead he burnt his home to the ground before his plane left the ground. This is the calling card of someone who is trying to cover their tracks, and insure that the investigative trail into his action will end at the ashes of his house. The media could have used this piece of conjecture to say that Stack was covering for others who may have provided him support, but the media remained generally reserved, as they should, and they certainly did not start a thread of editorials drawing links between Stack, and like minded authors, spokespeople and counsel for 501-c3 non-profit organizations, and college professors like what we have seen in the days following the Discovery Channel incident.
Remarkably, Fox News, Roff's own network, still hosts a page archiving Stack's complete suicide note despite Stack's web hosting service removing the note upon an order from the FBI to do so and despite Facebook's attempts to delete the profiles of Tea Party supporters who wish to post Stack's suicide note as a means to celebrate his action.
Since 9-11-2001 we have seen an increasingly inconsistent use of the word "terrorist". I say inconsistent rather than inaccurate because sometime crimes that clearly fit the definition of terrorism are in fact labeled as such, but occasionally the definition is not assigned because of the act itself, how it was carried out, or by who was affected, but rather by the politics involved. Furthermore there has been a disproportionate amount of cases involving animal rights and environmental actions that have immediately been labeled as "terrorist" actions. Will Potter, a freelance journalist from Washington, DC has been following this phenomenon and has done an immaculate job of documenting and reporting on what he has labeled "The Green Scare" through his blog http://greenisthenewred.com
In 2009 4 young activists were arrested and charged as terrorists for allegedly chalking defamatory slogans on the sidewalk in front of a U.C. Santa Cruz vivisector's home and allegedly producing & distributing pamphlets personally identifying and shaming animal researchers who engaged in practices they considered to be cruel. The law invoked in their case was the controversial Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA,) a designer statute lobbied for by special interests that aims to prosecute activists who "economically or physically disrupt the functioning of an animal enterprise." The 4 activists, known as the AETA 4 by their activist peers are not accused by the government of engaging in violence, nor are they accused of encouraging others to do so, instead the government's claim of physical disruption and a petty harassment claim are at the roots of their "terrorism" indictment.
The case of the AETA 4 is not the only case of it's kind, there have been dozens of people either labeled as "terrorists," or accused of supporting "terrorism," and some of these cases have been successfully prosecuted. I myself was a defendant in one such case...
On May 25th, 2004 I had just finished my last final exam after a few days cramming and little sleep. I went to bed early and remember waking up in my room startled, it was still dark out, and I heard yelling; the yelling was my mother. My mother yelled at me to run. Plain-clothed officers had forced their way into my parent's house, pushed my mother out of the way and ran up the stairs towards my bedroom. By the time my eyes could adjust they were already around me, all I could say to them is, "What do you want." They simply said, "You need to put some shoes on and come with us," I saw that one man had a gun drawn out at his side that he soon holstered after seeing my pathetic self wiping the sleep out of my eyes. I asked the men if they had a warrant for my arrest, they would not answer, I asked them what I was being arrested for and they told me "they could not answer that." They then asked me if I had to go to the bathroom, "Because" one of the men said, "we have a long car ride ahead of us."
I was brought in front of a federal judge in Newark, NJ that morning charged with one count of felony conspiring to commit animal enterprise terrorism for my alleged role in the financial disruption of a New Jersey animal testing facility called Huntingdon Life Sciences. Outside the courtroom was a media circus and U.S. Attorney, now NJ Governor, Christopher Christie, and Assistant U.S. Attorney now NJ Department of Homeland Security Chief, Charles McKenna were in the throes of ecstasy, they bagged their "terrorist" collar. Six other individuals were arrested with me that morning; we would later be named "the SHAC 7" for our alleged involvement with the campaign to "Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty" (SHAC).
Inside the courtroom was a stark contrast to the show being put on for the press outside, inside the judge hearing the indictment seemed as confused as we were. The judge refused the government's request to set a high bail on us and keep us in custody, instead she released on an unsecured bond, a rare occurrence, one that sent a powerful message to the prosecutors that their pursuit of this case would be challenged by some officers of the court. It was in these moments that I learned, in a very personal way, the government's and press's double standard regarding terrorism and security. Outside the courtroom I was being slandered in the press as a terrorist and extremist, and in chambers hearing the words, "Mr. Stepanian does not pose a threat to the community, nor is he a flight risk."
That day in 2004 marked the beginning of a long and rocky road where I stood trial as a terrorist, lost, was sentenced to a $1,000,001 restitution order, and served 3 years in federal prison with my last 6 months in a special "secretive terrorist prison unit." When I stood trial lobbyists from the Center For Consumer Freedom stood beside jury selection consultants to Huntingdon and members of the press, outside of the courtroom CCF played the PR game, while inside the court chambers the federal prosecutor told us directly that, "despite our mistakes," we were "well intended kids." Even while incarcerated the message was repeated that I was "not a threat" by authorities, prosecutors, and officials.
After the whole ordeal I was never charged, never even accused, of a single violent act, nor was I charged with or alleged to have encouraged others to be violent, moreover nothing violent ever happened in the events surrounding the case. Perhaps the most pungent statement came from a federal agent who told me, "It's all politics Andy. You stepped on some very powerful toes..." as he attempted to have some bizarre, quasi-parental, heart-to-heart conversation with me while I sat in my jail cell. He was not telling me anything I did not already know, but to hear it come from the agents mouth told me that he did not even believe what they were saying to the press, and it made my already confusing world all the more confusing. If I was charged as, tried, convicted, and released to the press as a terrorist, but was not a "terrorist" then what was I?
I was an effective activist, with a potentially powerful and potentially disruptive voice and for that reason alone they sought to label me a terrorist. Terrorism is a very charged word, especially after 9-11. I pissed off a bunch of influental people and it behooved them to use the terrorism title because they knew how much inertia would be behind it. They used the word "terrorist" on my co-defendants and I selectively.
With no violence alleged against us, what my co-defendants and I allegedly did can be held in stark contrast to what Joseph Stack did when he flew his plane into the IRS building killing Vernon Hunter and himself. Joseph Stack was never called a "terrorist" by the press for his actions, perhaps this too was done selectively because the political ideology he represented is one that resonates with many members of the Tea Party and similar groups that make up a great deal of the viewership base for outlets like FOX News. James Lee, however, expressed political views that were not congruent with that of right-leaning press outlets, or with that of special interest agencies like CCF who interact daily with the media, this may have contributed to his reclassification from "disturbed man" to "eco-terrorist." Again this use of the word "terrorist" appears to have been done selectively.
If we were to use the word terrorist consistently then we would determine that the actions of James Lee and Joseph Stack are more alike each other's actions than if Stack's or Lee's actions were to be compared to the non-violent actions of my codefendants and I. Prior to this it had been established by the government that my codefendants and I are in fact "convicted terrorists," our criminal records will state exactly that. The department of homeland security has already issued a statement the actions of Joseph Stack are not terrorism. Following their own logic then the actions of James Lee cannot be considered terrorist actions.
This semantically lopsided game of selectively labeling terrorism hurts people selectively. For a 12-year-old girl who barely has a memory of her father who died when the twin towers fell her pain is very real and easily defined. Calling myriad extreme acts, even when they are criminal in nature, acts of "terrorism" for political or publicity gains is irresponsible, it leaves people feeling hurt, confused, and desperate for reaction. It is in confusion and desperation that we see actions like those of James Lee and Joseph Stack. At the end of the day I feel a deep sadness for Lee and Stack both, sadness for Vernon Hunter and the IRS employees, for the Discovery Channel employees who were held captive, and even sadness for the officer who had to shoot Lee. When the non-violent actions of AETA 4 or the non-violent actions of my codefendants and I are labeled as terrorism it undercuts the seriousness of terrorism and it is a slap in the face to all the survivors and victims of the all-too-real and horrific acts of terrorism that happen around the world.