MY BROTHER IS considered one of the biggest domestic terrorists in the country. You probably haven't heard of him, and I think that's odd. After all, he's dangerous. He's trying to overthrow our country. He "doesn't like our freedoms," or so President Bush has said of terrorists in general, so I suppose that applies to my brother too.
Let me tell you a little bit about him. He likes the History Channel. He's a Trekkie. He cried (in secret) at the corny 1980s movie "Turtle Diary." He's good at fixing things. And, most important, he has devoted his life to stopping animals' suffering. To this end, he has broken the law. He crept into animal laboratories to free dogs. He dismantled corrals to release wild mustangs. He impersonated a fur buyer to film the treatment of minks. He put himself between whales and whalers despite warnings that his boat would be impounded and that he would be jailed. And nearly 10 years ago, he burned down a horse slaughterhouse in Redmond, Ore. It is for this final act that the U.S. government considers him among the ranks of Osama bin Laden, Eric Rudolph and Ramzi Ahmed Yousef.
"This is a classic case of terrorism," the federal prosecutor said earnestly to the judge during a hearing last week in my brother's case.
My brother, Jonathan Paul, has pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Eugene, Ore., to burning the Cavel West Slaughterhouse. He will find out on June 5 whether the judge considers his actions deserving of the "terrorism enhancement" to his sentence sought by the government. (Nine other members of the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front, who pleaded guilty to different charges, are being sentenced as well. The first, sentenced Wednesday, was deemed a terrorist.) If a terrorism enhancement is imposed, my brother's recommended sentence could go from less than three years to more than 14 years.
Don't let me give you the impression that I think arson is something to be taken lightly. I do not. The irony is rich in this case: I was a San Francisco firefighter for 13 years. I was angry and dismayed that my brother chose arson as a route to stop animal suffering. But "a classic case of terrorism"?
Federal laws define terrorism as one of a laundry list of offenses committed for the purpose of coercing the government to change its policies. It is a broad definition, designed to give judges wiggle room and adopted at a time when terrorism was a new concept. Congressional hearings in 1995 and 2001 make the original intent of the laws clearer. When House members and senators described acts of terrorism, every example (Pan Am Flight 103, Oklahoma City, the first World Trade Center bombing, the Tokyo subway attack) involved the killing of, or the intent to kill, human beings.
But recently the government has moved away from the idea of terrorist-as-murderer. The case involving my brother represents the first time that terrorism enhancements have been sought when all the evidence shows that the defendants took affirmative steps to make sure no one would be endangered.
Clearly the government is trying to expand — or more accurately, dilute — the definition of a terrorist to encompass those who engage in property damage. Egregious property damage, yes, but still just property damage.
Past terrorism cases also have involved targets with government links. But the Cavel West Slaughterhouse was a private Belgian corporation; its horsemeat went to Europe and Japan. The prosecutor has argued that some of the horses were wild mustangs, sold by the federal Bureau of Land Management, and that therefore there was a clear intent to disrupt government policy.
There's a legal term for this. It's called "overreaching."
How much safer do we feel now that ELF/ALF members, who have never hurt or intended to hurt a single human being, might be confined to a maximum-security prison? Could it really be true that the most powerful country in the world feels "coerced" by a bunch of bunny huggers? Is the confident "I am the decider" leader of this nation being bullied by vegans? Or is it possible that the government just wants to crow about convicting another "terrorist" while the main one is still at large?
A lot has been written about the radicalization that led to Bin Laden's hatred of the U.S. Let me tell you a bit about the conversion of one member of the group that the FBI now considers the "No. 1 domestic terrorist threat." When my brother was 15, he shot a bird out of a tree with a .22-caliber rifle. It fell to the ground, wings spread, gasping for air. He killed it with a rock. Then he vowed he would never knowingly harm an animal again.
My brother had hunted before. (Less perhaps then Ted Nugent but more than, say, Mitt Romney.) And yet on that day, he had a revelation. He can't explain it. A religious person might say it was the tiny cruciform bird on the ground. A psychotherapist might surmise that something had been percolating for a while, only to burst to the surface. Who knows? What I do know is that since that day in 1981, my brother has been resolute in the rescue and protection of animals.
Anyone who lives in Redmond will tell you how terrible the Cavel West Slaughterhouse was. The horses screamed all day. Their blood clogged the sewage system. The stench was unbearable. The killings, by many accounts, were slow and agonizing. My brother's sentiments were far from radical, and they had nothing to do with the government. His intention was simple: save the horses.
This does not mean arson was the right thing to do. If you call my brother a lawbreaker, I won't argue. But labeling him a terrorist dilutes the meaning of terrorism. And you demean all the Americans, and all those around the world, who have died in real terrorist acts.