When I heard the news that day … Oh boy. I had received an email from a man whom I knew only as the father of a (now former) student. We had met once, a few years ago when his son graduated, and he gave me a very nice bottle of wine, which I shared with a select group of wine experts only last Christmas. The wine had aged well and was outstanding.
He gave me the wine as a gift for having “done so much for his son” while he, the son, was an undergraduate student. It was true. I had done a lot for the young man. I had many long conversations with him about lofty sciency concepts, and he took a couple of my classes, but mainly I had helped him out by setting him up with fieldwork opportunities in South Africa. This young man, whom I’ll call John, was one of a small number of undergraduates that I’ve either taken with me to the field or arranged to go to the field to work with my colleagues there. I am very very careful about which students I might bring or send to the field. I am so careful that sometimes I make the mistake of accidentally chasing away a student that I shouldn’t have chased away.1 John was carefully selected by me for this opportunity, as well as by a colleague of mine who also sent John off to the field (to a different continent).
So yes, I had done much for John but I had done nothing that was not my job and nothing that I did not want to do or that did not give me due returns in many ways. I was more than happy to help John out in these ways, and his father did not have to give me a bottle of wine. But considering that I usually get by way of appreciation a nice card with a note extolling my virtues, it was kind of nice to get something I could drink.2
I loved “John.” He was smart, funny, respectful of all humans, a model student, a model nascent citizen of academia, a model person. In the end, not only did I support him in his fieldwork, but I also, again with my colleague, got a bidding war going among three of the top graduate institutions for him. He ended up at a major East Coast University doing exactly what he should be doing, and doing it very well, with a kick-ass fellowship, a kick-ass adviser, and excellent research prospects. John was a very satisfying success story. And all of his successes were really the product of his own ability and hard work. We were all proud of John, and I often thought well of him during the years since his departure to the East.
Then I heard the news.
The phone message from John’s father simply implied that something really bad had happened. So I tried to contact him but was only able to leave a message. Eventually, I got an email back that gave me nothing more than a cypher. According to the cypher, if I followed a certain procedure, all would become clear, and once that happened, would I please write a letter of support.
I was to enter John’s full name and the name of a particular state into Google Search, and the bad news that I needed to learn would be obvious to me.
Clearly, I was communicating with someone who was beside himself with some strong emotion … grief, anger, something … to the extent that he (an educator himself) was unable to articulate the circumstances in a normal sentence. He could not form the words to say what had to be said of his son.
So I entered John’s name and the name of the specified state into a Google search, and instantly found out that my former student had been arrested and charged, and copped a plea, for a significant act of domestic terrorism. He was looking at a possible ten or fifteen year sentence if he was lucky. The Internet was abuzz. His name had been changed by some organizations to “John the snitch” because he was turning state’s evidence. The list of activities he had apparently been engaged in was impressive …. quite a bit of destruction of property and attempted destruction of property, involving firebombs and other means, all as part of his membership in the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the affiliated Animal Liberation Front (ALF). Indeed one of the properties he managed to destroy is only a few hundred meters from where I sit typing these words, while other sites are in two different states some distance away.
I contacted John’s dad immediately and indicated that I certainly would provide a letter of support. And I thought about why John’s dad was being circumspect and indirect, and it was pretty obvious to me. Dad is a high school administrator. Some sort of principal. He is one of the members of society that needs to be both unforgiving and all forgiving of the foibles of youth. The fundamental goodness (or lack thereof) we possess (or not) as a society emerge among, or are educated into, or developed by (or not, not, not) the youngsters in his daily care. And here is one of them, a bit older, who happens to be his son, just out of high school (at the time of the crimes) blowing up shit.
There was not a moment then, nor since, when my feelings for John and my estimation of him as a person changed. This perplexed some people with whom I spoke after finding out this news. Some insisted that once someone commits a crime like this … blowing up or burning down research facilities, or at least, trying to (the ultimate outcome of most of John’s activities were not really all that impressive owing to a certain amount of incompetence and ‘bad’ luck) was seen by some as a reason to write him off, toss him in prison, and throw away the key. But guess what. You don’t do that with someone you care for, even if you might get really mad at them for being such as stupid idiot.
(In fact, you don’t do that in a civilized society. Those who feel especially victimized by the very thought of their potential victimization may be prone to histrionics, but histrionics does not convert into justice. We have a justice system for that.)
I spent the next few days, again together with my colleague who was also being asked to write a letter of support, researching the background on this news we had just learned. These letters would be incorporated into the sentencing process. So, this was just like any other letter of recommendation I’ve written, but where in most instances the subject of the letter would perhaps get into grad school, or get some kind of funding, this person was going to get less prison time. Maybe.
I already knew what my letter of support would include: A description of our relationship and my estimation of John as a person. That is what I knew, and that is what I could offer the court. But I did not know what weight that would have in this court room. I needed to know certain things. In particular, I needed to know what the timing was. If John had carried out all of these activities before starting undergraduate school and becoming my student, that was one thing. My estimate of him as a person who could never do what he in fact admitted to doing would have meaning. We would be seeing a person who had undergone a major transition, who had made a huge mistake and turned around. We would be seeing a person who perhaps should not be tossed in prison for a very long time.
If, on the other hand, John was busily blowing up University property in three states while at the same time going back and forth to field projects organized by my colleague and me, that would be different. If this was the case, not only would my estimation of him as a person who would never do such a thing be taken as an absurdity by any judge, but it might even be taken as an absurdity by me, and I might not even bother writing the letter. My feelings about him would not change … for reasons that are to me obvious … but they would become irrelevant. There would be almost nothing for me to offer to a judge deciding on John’s fate.
So I did three things. First, I pulled his records to determine exactly when he was in my classroom and when he was overseas. Then, I researched the court documents and found out when the things John was charged with had happened. This showed me that John’s last activities overlapped with his taking his first class from me by a few weeks. Interesting. I thought back to that class, and I remembered something quite relevant. That was not long after the ALF had hit our campus. Subsequent to that strike, in which several animals were “liberated” (but, later, rescued by Minneapolis police) and several graduate students’ research projects were also “liberated” (= destroyed), I started to incorporate a discussion about this sort of shenanigans in my lectures, at least for a couple of years. (Just to be clear: John was not involved in those earlier ALF activities.)
I could so easily imagine these young, smart, creative, and thoughtful kids … students that I sometimes got to know and truly appreciate, becoming politically motivated and active. I could encourage them to take up important issues, or at least, not stomp on their idealism. But it was also quite easy to imagine some of these students being utter morons. It was a fine line between wanting to do the right thing and ending up in a cycle of justification and nefarious planning, aggrandizing the cause and nefarious action, seeing oneself as the judge and the prosecutor and carrying out sentence on society and society’s infrastructure.
So I lectured, briefly but annually, in my Very Large Course about the validity of political action, about the validity of concern for animal ‘welfare,’ and about the utter stupidity and moral bankruptcy of ALF and similar misguided causes. I wonder now if John was planning his next hit in those days, but heard me speak about these issues in lecture, and suddenly saw the light: There is no valid rational argument supporting what ALF had been doing (and is still very much doing, only perhaps with accelerated pace and increased severity in recent years). There are many routes to change, and this is not one of them. There are many routes to change that involve pro-active political action, even civil disobedience, that are valid and that are supportable with a rational argument. But these tricksters are morons. Stay away.
Apparently, John did stay away. The court documents indicate no such activity after that date. As I write this, I do not really know, of course, if he ever heard me say these things or if he did, if it mattered.
The third thing I did was to consult close, trusted, friends who might have had suspicions, even if only in hindsight, of John’s activities following those documented. I also learned other details that were known but not in the public domain. In this consultation and research I verified my own estimation, and without going into any detail at this time, I was able to reconstruct the salient events of John’s entry into, and more importantly exit from, this underworld life3. And, verily, ever since that one weekend during his first semester in my classroom, there was nothing. John was out of business as a domestic terrorist. Or stupid idealist with gasoline. Or whatever.
There is nothing I’ve specified here that is not public record. Indeed, you can probably figure out who “John” is in fewer than ten minutes on Google. This is an interesting story (so far) and social voyeurs will especially enjoy looking in on this tragedy. John was sentenced yesterday (as I write this … you’ll be reading this some time later) and will spend several years in prison. He will be allowed to continue his graduate studies in prison. So, in a sense, … (Insert your favorite joke about graduate school here. I actually can’t bring myself to do it.)
But why write about this?
Because I have a problem with people that I love doing utterly stupid things.
And I assume that among the throngs of young men and women who are out there, engaged in political action, dedicated to important causes, ready to devote themselves to change, there are some that I would love if I knew them (and perhaps you would as well), and some of these individuals are going to do the stupid things.
Civil disobedience, often with violence, is fine. Escaped slaves and the operatives of the Underground Railway were disobedient. People who escaped from, or abetted escape from, the Nazi camps were disobedient, and the French Underground was violent. Our “Founding Fathers” were disobedient to The Crown big time, with guns and shooting and blowing shit up. They even shot the officers, which was the equivalent in those days of the modern practice of putting your “baby formula factory” inside the “day care center.”
And we tend to judge such things in hindsight. There were many different little rebellions going on in 18th and early 19th century North America, and only a handful of them happen to be connected, post hoc, to the Glorious American Revolution. The rest are hooligans and shenanigans and terrorists. In some cases, this really is a matter of bad timing more than bad behavior. Well, it was all bad behavior. The link between the bad behavior and the just and right argument is a matter of timing. If the Green Mountain Boys were active after rather than before the Revolution, Ethan Allen may have been hung rather than deified. Post hoc, we can say that the Founding Fathers and the French Resistance were cool, but other similar entities of history not so much.
But the validity and legitimacy of any violent movement is not just a matter of timing. The Nazi’s started out as domestic terrorists just as the American Rebels did. So did the Bolsheviks. No, we tend as well to judge these movements, post hoc, on other merits. Some can be seen as righteous and some as wrong for quasi independent reasons that are not just accidents of history.
But there is a third axis along which we can judge movements that engage in violence to enact change: The link to and articulation of the rational argument. ALF does not have one. ELF does not have one. Their arguments are based on misconceptions, misinformation, crappy logic, bad planning, and political ineptitude. Their arguments are shit. ALF and ELF have probably done more harm than good, in terms of the politics and public opinion, in the areas of animal care and environmental concern. The environmental movement and the animal ‘rights’ movement have progressed to the extent that they have despite, not because of, ELF/ALF.
So don’t do that. That is my message. That is why I’m writing about John.
Just don’t fucking do that, OK?
1. I choose to avoid having a lot of regrets, but that would be one of them. You know of whom I speak if you are the one. (Of whom I speak.)
2. Students of the future (or their parents) who wish to thank me can consider wine an appropriate modality of appreciation. Red.
3. I don’t avoid mention of these details because they are unknown to the authorities. They are known to the authorities. Rather, I don’t mention them because they are not part of the public record. In other words, I don’t know anything you don’t know, if you are the FBI and you are reading this blog post.