Perhaps only in the superheated atmosphere of the current conflict over the U.S. Senate's confirmation of judges could a hearing about illegal bombings and arson by animal rights groups turn into a partisan affair. Yet that is precisely what happened at Wednesday's hearing  of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on the actions of the Animal Liberation Front, the Earth Liberation Front and other groups that have taken credit for attacks on university research laboratories and other facilities in recent years.
It's not that any of the lawmakers defended the attacks as appropriate or legitimate; the fault line that produced endless party line bickering was over a Federal Bureau of Investigation conclusion (endorsed by the panel's Republican leaders) that "eco-terrorism" of the sort practiced by these groups is the No. 1 domestic terrorism threat facing the United States. Also contentious were accusations by witnesses and Republican senators that what they called "mainstream individuals and organizations" such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and even the Humane Society of the United States help "support" the more extreme groups, financially and otherwise.
"As with any other criminal enterprise," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the committee's chairman, "we can not allow individuals and organizations to, in effect, aid and abet criminal behavior or provide comfort to them after the fact."
Committee Democrats challenged the FBI's conclusion about the relative terror threat posed by the animal rights groups, arguing that acknowledged white supremacists like Timothy McVeigh and admitted killers of abortion providers like Eric Rudolph represent a bigger threat to the nation. Bureau officials said they had put “eco-terrorism” at the top of the list because of the amount of property damage the attacks had caused and their geographical breadth, even though the attacks had so far not killed or seriously injured any people (“dumb luck,” said  John E. Lewis, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division).
Democrats also rallied to the defense of mainstream environmental and animal rights groups, which also issued news releases challenging the committee's assertions.
Amid the melee, David J. Skorton,  the University of Iowa president who was the lone witness from academe at Wednesday's session, sought to stay above the fray, and he emerged as the voice of reason.
In his prepared testimony  and in answers to oftentimes politically loaded questions from one side of the political aisle or the other, Skorton stuck to two key messages.
He dispassionately (yet compassionately) described the damage, physical and psychological, that was done by a November 2004 attack  on laboratories at the university. Far worse than the $450,000 in damage to scientific equipment, computers and supplies, Skorton said, was the "human cost" to the researchers who lost or faced major delays in their scholarly work and to them and their families because of harassment and fear that they faced in the days and weeks that followed.
Skorton noted that the Animal Liberation Front, which took credit for the attack, sent e-mails that included the names and home addresses of the psychology department researchers who conduct animal research. "Publicizing this personal information was blatant intimidation," Skorton said, adding that because of safety worries, "numerous researchers are even concerned about allowing their children to play in their own yards."
He said he was deeply worried about the "opportunity cost" of research that might not be conducted because scientists were scared off by attacks from animal rights extremists -- a cost that he acknowledged was difficult to nail down, but that he believed "could be measured by many, many" lives that might not be saved.
But while Skorton came down hard on the wrongheadedness and illegality of acts like the attack at Iowa -- rejecting as "specious" and "nonsense" the argument that they are civil disobedience in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. -- he also stood up quite passionately for academic freedom and for the right of animal rights advocates to push their cause, with which he expressed some sympathy. (He also sought to distance himself, politely, from committee leaders' view that the animal rights groups are terrorists. "I called this a criminal act, and I am always careful with the words I choose," Skorton told reporters after the hearing. "It is criminal because it broke laws.")
Skorton, who described himself as a vegetarian who is "active in animal rights" issues, said there was a "whole area of constructive discussion" in which "reasonable people can disagree" about the appropriate balance between research interests and the protection of animals. "On university campuses, especially, it is our obligation to have that debate," he said, even if people take "odious" points of view.
As proof of Iowa's commitment to engaging in that discussion, Skorton told the committee that in January, he had approved a student group's request to have Steven Best, a self-described "national press officer" for the animal liberation movement, deliver a speech on the campus two months after the attack on Iowa's labs. Skorton said that while some officials and students on the campus urged him to reject the speaking invitation to Best,  who is an associate professor and chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Texas at El Paso, the president had concluded that it was "very important that universities don't become closed enclaves."
In the speech, Skorton said, Best was "very strongly supportive of the worst violent acts" that have been undertaken in the name of animal rights so far," and said that the "real aggressors" were those doing the research inside the labs. The president said that he would not have allowed Best to speak if he had threatened violence against researchers during the speech. But because Best did not "immediately, directly" incite violence, Skorton said, the university did not intervene.
While Skorton's disdain for Best's views were clear, the Iowa president's comments were perhaps the tamest things said about Best at Wednesday's session. David Martosko, director of research at a nonprofit coalition of restaurants and alcohol and tobacco companies, called the Center for Consumer Freedom, cited numerous supportive comments Best has made about the Animal Liberation Front and other groups.
Such statements aren't hard to find -- Best's own Web site is filled with them, like this one: "I support the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). I support property destruction against industries that massacre animals and rape the planet. Since when do implements of death and devastation fall outside the range of legitimate attack? I do not believe that property destruction is violence, but even if it is, violence is defensible in certain cases and I will always defend the lesser over the greater violence."
Egged on by Inhofe and other Republicans on the committee, Martosko's criticism of Best -- who was not in attendance -- escalated as the hearing wore on. In his prepared testimony, he said that Best's "academic position affords him a position of regrettable influence within the animal rights movement;” in response to questioning from the panel’s chairman, he called Best “part cheerleader and part recruiter” for extreme animal rights groups, going so far as to say that he “uses the classroom” to “close the deal with adolescents who are inclined to throw bombs.” Martosko did not provide evidence to back up the latter claim.
Best was traveling in Prague and could not be reached by telephone. But in an e-mail reply to a request for comment, he wrote: "I am clearly on the record defending the ALF and don't take back a word I said. Martosko, however, is engaging in pure McCarthyesque slander and vilification. I have discussed the ALF in the classroom, but I surely never have exploited the classroom to recruit students.... I am in the above ground support movement, I do not operate in both worlds such that I am in contact with anyone in the ALF or recruit anyone for it. I simply defend their courageous and just actions, and nothing I do falls outside my constitutional rights."