Can you really call a group which does its best not to physically harm people a terrorist group?
NPR reported recently on Peter Daniel Young, who is likely to face terrorism charges because he freed a bunch of minks, so as to prevent them from becoming fur coats. In doing so, he caused extensive economic harm to the person who owned the minks (or possibly --- this was not in the story --- to his insurance company).
One definition of terrorism (FBI Terrorist Research and Analytical Center, Terrorism in the United States: 1994, Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Justice, 1995, p. 24.) says:
Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.
Wikipedia cites the FBI's specific definition:
The FBI's Domestic Terrorism Section defines eco-terrorism as "the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature."
It's very interesting that a movement which studiously avoids physically injuring humans in its work can be classified as terrorist. I do see the logic in the categorization; the idea is to make a political statement to society at large by making people feel that their property and livelihood are threatened. It's an attempt to motivate people by fear.
I understand the logic, but I think it's too broad. When I was at Michigan State, Earth First set fire to a campus building in order to stop some agricultural genetic engineering that was going on there. It's not too big of a stretch to compare that to blowing up a building to protest US troops in Saudi Arabia. Even if nobody dies, an organized pattern of burning down people's homes and places of work could constitute a terrorist movement.
But freeing the minks? This isn't intimidation, this is direct action based on the beliefs of Peter Daniel Young and his colleagues. They are not attempting to cause collateral damage sufficient to scare people away from being mink farmers. If that is what they wanted to do, they would wait for mink farmers to leave their homes, and then burn them down. They would strike at a variety of targets near and dear to the mink farmer. But actually, they would free the minks even if the minks were worth no dollars to anyone.
Al-Qaeda is called a terrorist group partly because, while they want US troops out of Saudi Arabia, they do not exclusively attack US troops in Saudi Arabia. Instead, they attack civilians in the US, to try and create a climate that will help them accomplish their goals.
Peter Daniel Young believes that keeping minks locked up, then skinning them and selling them, is a horrible crime. So he frees the minks, acting directly on his beliefs with no collateral damage or intended intimidation. What he did undeniably has criminal penalties which he will have to face. Until we stop considering animals property, it will be theft on a large scale to release them. but to put him in the same category as Al-Qaeda is to make that category morally useless.
This use of the category, much like its use by the recording industry, is an economically motivated move to use the power of the state against a political and cultural movement disruptive to the established order. We shouldn't go along with it.