On monday in Washington, President Obama heralded the return of what he terms "sound science" to the administration of federal policy.
At that moment in Los Angeles, a joint federal and local law enforcement task force was investigating the latest incident in a 3-year-old terrorist campaign being waged against UCLA medical researchers. This time, a group that calls itself the Animal Liberation Front firebombed a car on Saturday belonging to a neuroscientist whose research into psychiatric disorders involves primates.
This was the latest incident in a long-running war. Since July 2006, extremists who oppose the use of animals in any medical research have attacked UCLA scientists or their property in five actual or attempted arsons and five acts of criminal vandalism. Telephone threats have been made, and researchers' children have been followed to and from school.
There also have been more than 40 demonstrations, many at the scientists' homes -- often in the middle of the night by people whose identity is concealed by hoods -- involving intense harassment, including banging on windows and chanting profanities.
As UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, himself the director of a medical research lab, told me: "Imagine having protesters outside your home on many weekends, screaming to your children and neighbors that you are a murderer, or being pointed to a website that describes you in the most vile terms possible, lists your home address and encourages people to do you harm, or going to bed wondering whether this will be the night that someone tries to burn down your house." (The university has spent more than $1 million in extra security costs since 2006.)
Over the last 100 years, medical research has done more to improve the lot of people around the world than any other human activity. But the UCLA scientists working to extend those benefits aren't the only targets. City officials who deal with animal shelters have been harassed out of their jobs, and their homes and those of their parents have been the scenes of demonstrations. Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who runs the LAPD's Counter-terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau, says the campaign "does seem to be escalating," both in terms of the number of incidents and in their violence.
No sensible person dismisses the humane treatment of animals as inconsequential, but what the fanatics propose is not an advance in social ethics. To the contrary, it is an irrational intrusion into civil society, a tantrum masquerading as a movement. It is a kind of ethical pornography in which assertion stands in for ideas, and willfulness for argument, all for the sake of self-gratification. At the end of the day, there is no moral equivalence between the lives of humans and those of animals.
Knowledgeable authorities believe a relative handful of people are actually involved in the terrorist acts. A larger group shows up for the marginally peaceful demonstrations, and a slightly larger one provides various kinds of material support. Behind them is a far larger group of individuals who purport to be peacefully concerned with animal welfare, but say they "understand" how some frustrated confreres can be driven to extremes by society's indifference to what they deem a moral imperative.
This sort of wink-and-nod morality is all too familiar to anyone who's had contact with the fringe of the antiabortion movement. The truth is that we here in L.A. are just one psychotic sartori away from the night one of these goofballs decides that a researcher's life is worth less than a white rat's or a monkey's and decides to redress the imbalance.
Think that's an overstatement? Here's Jerry Vlasak, a physician who is a frequent spokesman for militant animal rights activists: "Force is a poor second choice, but if that's the only thing that will work ... there's certainly moral justification for that."
The LAPD backs legislation -- carried by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) -- that could give local authorities new tools to investigate and prosecute those who provide material assistance to terrorists. There are serious civil liberties implications to such legislation, and every provision needs to be weighed carefully. As Downing said: "Free speech always should be protected, but when nonviolent struggle turns violent, as this one has, that's terrorism."
At the end of the day, though, two things need to happen: Law enforcement officials need to step up their attention to this investigation, because there's a tragedy in the offing if they don't. And L.A.'s extensive network of animal welfare advocates need to make it clear that they repudiate not only the terrorists but all who provide them material and tacit support of any sort.