May 6, 2002, Volkert van der Graaf, a 33 year-old vegan animal rights activist was waiting nervously in a parking lot outside of a Denmark radio studio. It was days before the Dutch general elections. Inside the studio, political candidate Pim Fortuyn swore that if his party rose to power he would lift the ban outlawing fur farming in the Netherlands. Minutes later, as Fortuyn was about to get into his limousine, our activist pulled a gun out of his pocket and shot the politician five times, point blank, in the chest, gunning him down, dead, in broad daylight. Later he told the Court that he committed murder “guided by my conscience.”

Last year in California, animal activists claimed responsibility for two predawn pipe bombings. Thankfully, no one was hurt—except, perhaps, the animal rights movement.

Take, for example, the failure of right wing religious terror in this country. Although the morally contemptuous murders of nine abortion doctors and supporters seemed to have reduced abortion availability by intimidating providers and their support network, most analyses view the terror as ultimately backfiring against the anti-choice movement in terms of public credibility. In fact, according to the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, the percentage of people considering themselves pro-choice actually peaked in 1994, the anti-choice murderers’ single bloodiest year.

The animal exploitation industries are drooling to have us hurt someone. They know that our power is our compassion. That’s why they try to take away our power by painting us as violent misanthropes. In fact, they’ve wanted to make us look violent so bad that they weren’t even willing to wait around until one of us snapped. November 11, 1989, U. S. Surgical company, a long-time target of animal activists because of their use of live dogs in surgical stapling demonstrations, furnished pipe bombs to a young animal activist and drove her to place them in the company president’s parking space. In the ensuing trial it came out that the whole assassination plot was engineered by U.S. Surgical’s president Leon Hirsh himself. In the PR industry exposé Toxic Sludge is Good for You, authors Stauber and Rampton write, “Normally, of course, company presidents do not arrange their own murder, but Hirsch was neither crazy nor suicidal. He was trying to engineer an embarrassing scandal that would discredit the animal rights movement.”

They want us to look like violent militants. It pushes us off our moral high ground. This is even spelled out explicitly in the official 1988 American Medical Association white paper on how to discredit our movement. Quoting from the report, the AMA advises corporations that people who believe in animal rights “must be shown to be…responsible for violent and illegal acts that endanger life.” Animal rights activists must be seen as people who are “terrorists,” who are “opposed to human well-being.” And this is the same advice you find in the strategy papers of Ringling Brothers, the pork producers, the Fur Information Council of America. I fear we are walking right into their trap.

he corporations know that their Achilles heel is the truth. They have to do everything in their power to keep people ignorant. A quote from a 2004 animal agriculture textbook: “For modern animal agriculture, the less the consumer knows about what’s happening before the meat hits the plate, the better.” They know that hundreds of millions of people would be against them if they only knew the truth. Everybody is against cruelty to animals. So the industry’s only chance is to marginalize our movement and distract the public from the real issue. And the real issue is the violence that goes on inside their factory farms, their labs, their slaughterhouses. Our secret weapon, therefore, is effective education.

What do I mean by effective education? Is screaming Compassion is the Fashion! at passersby in our best death metal voice at a fur demo effective education? I don’t think so. The “open rescue” tactic, pioneered by Patty Mark in Australia, where unmasked activists openly liberate abused animals, is effective education. Vegan Outreach’s adopt-a-college campaign, where volunteers hand out free copies of their influential “Why Vegan?” booklet to students, is another example of effective education. And while preaching to the convertible on some school campus may seem less sexy than living out our macho fantasies, the animals deserve no less.

In our sheltered activist circles it’s easy to forget how effective the industry has been at concealing the ugly truth. People still simply don’t know what goes on in factory farms. Most people, for example, don’t even know that dairy cows are slaughtered. In the biggest study on transitioning towards vegetarianism to date involving thousands of high school seniors across 52 schools, only 29 percent of the young women and 17 percent of the men disagreed with the statement “I think meat production is done humanely.” There is much educational work to be done.

We animal rights activists tend to live in a fantasy world. Too many activists wrap themselves in vegan cliques and insulate themselves from the real world. When hundreds of animal activists on the 1996 March for Animals were asked to guess the odds that everyone in America would go vegetarian over the next 15 years, the average respondent predicted that there was over a one in five chance of everyone in the U.S. giving up meat by the year 2011! And the chances that animal experimentation would be abolished by 2011? Forty percent. I hate to be the one to have to break it people, but we’re deluding ourselves. One can see, though, how seductive political violence might seem to those under the delusion that the vegan revolution is right around the corner. We need to take a step back, though, and recognize that we need to be in this for the long haul. And that means we have to recognize that public opinion matters.

A few pipe bombs are not going to topple multi-billion dollar industries. What they may do, however, is play right into the opposition’s blood-stained hands and make our education efforts more difficult. It may plant a wedge and further distance society from being open to our message.

Who cares what they think, though? Why should we care about public opinion? Because unless we think there are enough vegans in this world, unless we think there are enough animal activists, unless we are content that we have reached some kind of revolutionary quorum, then it matters what society thinks because we need to grow. We need to be a movement that people want to join. We can go on and on about the victorious availability of soy milk everywhere now, but we’re losing. We’re losing more and more animals every single year. We need to become a mass movement.

The T-shirts of Animal Rights Hawaii quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kinds of extremists we will be.” I think we should be nonviolent extremists for the animals.

This article was originally printed in Satya Magazine.

Images are courtesy of Animals Voice. To view their website and find out more about how you can learn about and help animals, please visit our Links page at www.nuvunow.ca/articles/links/linksanimals.html

Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized speaker on a number of important public health and social justice issues. Dr. Greger has been invited to lecture at countless universities, medical schools and conferences around the world, including the National Institutes of Health and the 2004 Conference on World Affairs. Dr. Greger is a general practitioner specializing in clinical nutrition and a founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He is author of Carbophobia: The Scary Truth Behind America’s Low Carb Craze and Heart Failure: Diary of a Third Year Medical Student, and has contributed to a number of other books on nutrition and food safety issues.