Like many others, I’m sure, I was given the new Jon Ronson collection, Lost at sea, for Christmas. Largely consisting of profile pieces, it’s standard Ronson: an addictive blend of shortcomings, bravado and relentless absurdities. One section, ‘Justice’, tells tales of Kafkaesque and Stan Lee-like wrongs, such as the story of Victor Deeb. A Syrian American in his 70s who had dedicated every spare moment over the past twenty years to his home-science experiments, Deeb had been working on a new coating for the inside of aluminium cans that didn’t contain Bisphenol A, a chemical substance responsible for various hormonal imbalances.

In 2008, an officer passing Deeb’s house noticed smoke – caused by a shorted plug – and called the fire department. The fire department, in turn, saw Deeb’s science lab and called for reinforcements, which included the police, the FBI, even the CIA. They seized his experiments and data, combed through them, discovered nothing, and then left the box of data, research he’d been working on for two decades, out in the rain.

‘I think Mr Deeb has crossed a line somewhere,’ one of the officers told a local paper. ‘This is not what we would consider to be a customary home occupation.’

The thick Syrian accent that Ronson mentions possibly partly accounts for the reactions of local law enforcement (that is, racism); the rest might be explained by the paranoia that buttresses the War on Terror, wherein a potential terrorist lurks in every basement, and in every demonstration of dissent. Life under the surveillance that goes with such a war means that people and their pastimes cannot help but appear suspicious. Activities and motives not deciphered immediately, home-science experiments for example, are easily misconstrued.

But if this is the way a government on terrorist watch treats home scientists and amiable citizens, what does it mean for genuine dissenters, those who knowingly defy laws and practices they oppose?

On the weekend the sad news broke of the death of Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old technology whiz and activist facing felony charges for downloading millions of JSTOR articles, via an MIT internet connection, which could have ended in a 35-year prison sentence and a $1,000,000 fine. Even though Swartz never distributed the research, and in fact returned the files to JSTOR, the prosecution continued to build a case under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (note the district attorney’s top priorities: terrorism, national security, civil rights and white-collar crime. On the Swartz case, she commented, ‘Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar’, even though copyright infringement isn’t, technically or legally, theft).

Swartz’s downloading was, of course, a political act of computing disobedience that proclaimed that research conducted by academics is for the public good, and should thus be available to the public – to home scientists and questioning minds everywhere, who shouldn’t have to pay $33 per article.

Glenn Greenwald suggested that the District of Massachusetts was so dogged in its pursuit of Swartz because it’s part of a war over who controls the internet and the information on it – ‘and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information’; researcher and academic Danah Boyd thought it was because hackers have, of late, challenged the status quo, and ‘called into question the legitimacy of countless political actions’; while Cory Doctorow claimed that ‘the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them’.

What we can surmise from the legal reactions to WikiLeaks’ leaks, the trial of Bradley Manning, and the general befuddlement over how the internet works is that governments are fearful of activists capable of disseminating information they find, without regard for the laws that governments and corporations have established to manage the internet.

Besides, who can say with certainty that downloading academic papers has not crossed that terrorist line?

While it might at first sound farfetched, to lump activists in with terrorists before the eyes of the law, the pursuit of animal rights activists in the US shows how the need to quash dissent (and any threat to profit) manifests legally.

In 2006, the US senate passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which can be used against any activist who interferes with the operations of an ‘animal enterprise’ (a business that uses animals as a material or resource). It’s a bizarre law for a number of reasons, but especially because the direct actions targeted by the bill were already illegal under US law.

Animal rights activists in the US have already been convicted and imprisoned for conspiracy (one served seven years, while another was kept in a Communication Management Unit, a maximum security prison for terrorists) because they managed a website that allowed activists to post information and events, including direct actions. One member was sentenced for providing ‘technical assistance’ to the site. Will Potter, a journalist who has documented the government’s obsession with environmental and animal rights activists, calls it the green scare.

Are we about to see a push for similar legislation here? After the Whitehaven Hoax last week, in which Jonathan Moylan distributed a press release on behalf of the ANZ bank announcing they had cancelled their loan to Whitehaven Coal, the Age published an editorial under the headline ‘Sharemarket damaged by financial terrorism’, that called for ‘swift and rigorous’ action against Moylan:

The environmental activist – or perhaps financial terrorist would be closer to the mark – claimed the hoax was part of a campaign against ANZ which he says is being conducted ‘because we believe that if customers of the bank knew their money was being used to finance coal they’d object to that’.

What arrant nonsense. If the action was aimed at ANZ, then protest against the bank – but do so peaceably. In our democracy, we believe there is a legitimate role for protest and demonstrations. But there is no place for causing deliberate damage to property – for that is what investments are – of the bank’s clients or financial markets generally for the sake of extraneous goals. No matter how worthy the cause, it does not justify using criminal means.

It’s in the last line that the Age rules out most forms of political demonstration, from street protests to strikes and pickets, all of which use ‘criminal means’ or, indeed, cause economic damage. This so-called threat that activism poses to the sharemarket is more than a little disingenuous, and actually exposes the insubstantialty of the market, in which a mere rumour could cause value to plummet.

‘Let’s have some precision in language here,’ wrote environmental activist and author Edward Abbey, whose novel The Monkey Wrench Gang became a how-to manual for activists engaged in direct action, ‘terrorism means deadly violence – for a political and/or economical purpose – carried out against people and other living things, and is usually conducted by governments against their own citizens (as at Kent State, or in Vietnam, or in Poland, or in most of Latin America right now), or by corporate entities such as J Paul Getty, Exxon, Mobil Oil, etc etc., against the land and all creatures that depend upon the land for life and livelihood.’

Sabotage on the other hand, Abbey wrote, describes the ‘use of force against inanimate property, such as machinery … [It] has never meant and has never implied the use of violence against living creatures.’

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Thanks for this disturbing piece, Jacinda. Democracy Now! had a special on Aaron Swartz – another victim of US totalitarianism.

    Reminds me of this: ‘Galileo’s part in the controversies over theology, astronomy, and philosophy culminated in his trial by the Roman Inquisition in 1633, who found him “gravely suspect of heresy” and sentenced him to indefinite imprisonment. This was subsequently commuted to house arrest, under which he remained for the rest of his life.’

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