If they plan like terrorists, talk like terrorists and act like terrorists—shouldn’t they be treated like terrorists? Yet animal activists want to have their civil rights, and flaunt them, too.

The FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force has kept files on activists who expose animal welfare abuses on factory farms and recommended prosecuting them as terrorists, according to a new document uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act request.

Earlier this month, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit challenging the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which allows prosecution of activists who trespass on and vandalize meat plants and livestock facilities as terrorists, as unconstitutional. Why? Because its “vague wording” has had a chilling effect on political activism.

At least that’s the view of the animal rights activists and factory farm opponents.

Since 2003, four years before the AETA was passed by Congress, the FBI had kept files detailing the activities of several animal rights activists who went undercover to document alleged animal welfare violations. According to a report by OpEdNews.com, the FBI special agent who authored the report said they “illegally entered buildings” owned by a producer, videotaped the premises and removed several animals from the farm.

That action caused “economic loss” to the businesses, the FBI said. The apologists within the animal rights community tried to paint such violations as “acts of non-violent civil disobedience,” since the perpetrators distributed press releases and conducted media interviews taking responsibility for their actions.

Now, they’re outraged that the FBI has files on those who would commit such actions.

Depends on the definition of rescue

“It is deeply sobering to see one’s name in an FBI file proposing terrorism charges,” Ryan Shapiro, one of the activists charged with trespassing and unauthorized videotaping, said in an email to officials at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “It is even more sobering to realize the supposedly terroristic activities in question are merely exposing the horrific cruelty of factory farms, educating the public about what goes on behind those closed doors, and openly rescuing a few animals from one of those farms as an act of civil disobedience.”

Rescue or theft? That’s the question. One man’s liberation is another man’s loss of property.

Whatever label you wish to use, the point here is inescapable: The supposedly non-violent actions that opponents of animal agriculture take in capturing and removing farm animals is a violation of the law. Always has been. All that the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act does is allow prosecution of the offenders as terrorists, rather than as common thieves.

It’s no different from passing laws authorizing special punishment for so-called “hate crimes.” It’s always been possible to punish those who burn crosses, deface houses or otherwise harass people on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation. But often, the small fines and minimal jail terms prescribed by trespassing and property damage statutes don’t fit the egregious nature of the offenses. Thus, it’s necessary to identify special circumstances that change what would normally be mere misdemeanors into the more serious crimes that they are.

Likewise with acts of property damage, trespassing and animal theft done in the name of “exposing” the conditions on so-called factory farms. The perpetrators want—indeed, desperately desire—that their actions will strike fear in the hearts of the owners of farms, ranches and meat plants. They wouldn’t want to merely be hauled into some municipal court and fined as if they’d received a traffic ticket for driving 35 mph along the town’s 25-mph main drag.

They want their crimes to seem sensational. They want the media to portray them as fanatical terrorists willing to do anything to change what they hope the public would agree is a horrific system of food production. Indeed, that’s how the activists characterize themselves: As crusaders committed to do “whatever it takes” to destroy modern animal agriculture.

So the notion that these same activists are outraged when the FBI starts treating them exactly as they secretly (and not-so-secretly) wish to be portrayed is ironic in the extreme.

They boast about how they will “take down” an evil system that exploits animals. They glory in the “bravery” of those who go underground and steal, vandalize and disrupt operations at packing plants and livestock facilities in order to stop the abuses they decry.

Then they turn around and file suit when laws designed to deal with the very lawlessness they espouse are used against them.

That’s the real outrage in this whole scenario.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.