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Terrorists Hit University Researchers
Henry I. Miller
Last week, firebombs that exploded minutes apart destroyed a car parked outside the campus home of a researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz, and burned the front door of another's home. He and his family had to escape the smoke-filled house via a ladder lowered from a second-story window. A third researcher received a threatening telephone message around the same time. These examples of domestic terrorism are part of a vicious pattern of terrorist acts against university researchers who are involved with experiments that use animals.

Other incidents include the January explosion of a Molotov cocktail on the front porch of a UCLA researcher's home, the same home that last fall was flooded when someone broke a window and inserted a garden hose with the water on full flow. (Interestingly, a similar incident of vandalism had occurred previously in Sonoma, at a business that produced foie gras.) In February, six masked activists tried to force their way into a researcher's Santa Cruz home during a child's birthday party. At the UC San Francisco, faculty have received death threats, and one researcher was confronted by a burning effigy on the doorstep of his home.

There has been near-unanimous condemnation of these terrorist acts, and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block staunchly defended the academic freedom of university faculty, branding the flooding incident a "deplorable and illegal act of extreme vandalism." Even prominent advocates for animal rights condemned the recent bombings; a statement from the national Humane Society said the bombing tactics are "reviled by mainstream advocates of animal protection."

"One cannot claim to be an animal protection advocate and threaten violence against other people, even if we disagree with what they are doing," said the organization's president.

Similar responses have come from British universities and other institutions when animal rights activists terrorized researchers there in recent years. Such reactions would seem to be a foregone conclusion for anyone with a functioning moral compass, but recent events in Germany belie that notion.

Widespread and repeated vandalism in several European countries - focused there on field trials of gene-spliced plants - has been exceedingly damaging to agricultural research, including critical risk-assessment studies. The latest incident occurred in June when experimental wheat plants were destroyed at a research station near Zurich. The field trial was intended to assess the interactions of gene-spliced wheat with other plants, soil microorganisms and insects.

In France and Germany as well, small-scale field trials of gene-spliced plants conducted by researchers at universities and research institutes regularly have been vandalized by activists, even though most of these investigations were studying the environmental safety of growing gene-spliced plants in normal agricultural environments. One German postdoctoral fellow was attacked with stones while trying to protect his virus-resistant sugar beets from vandals.

A few scientists have continued to pursue their researches in the face of such violence - which, unlike similar attacks in the United Kingdom and United States, has been virtually ignored by the criminal justice system - but the coup de grce may now have been administered by the recent decision of two German universities to prohibit field trials of gene-spliced crops.

In April, the rector and external advisory board of NÜrtingen-Geislingen University in Baden-WÜrttemberg "urgently recommended" that a faculty member terminate his field trials - which had begun in 1996 - on insect-resistant and fungus-resistant gene-spliced corn. "We have always been very critical of this kind of research," said economist Werner Ziegler, the university's rector. "Lately things got out of control. There were e-mail attacks, vandalism, intimidation and personal threats."

Also in April, the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Hesse, announced that it would stop its planned initiation of two small field trials of insect-resistant gene-spliced corn after protests by activists and local politicians. Both trials had been approved by the national consumer protection and food safety agency and were to be conducted on behalf of the national authority for agriculture variety and seed affairs.

Along with France, Germany has experienced consistent and violent vandalism of field trial sites, but the appropriate response is not to ban the research. Would a British, Canadian or American university even consider banning research using animals in response to the threats, intimidation and violence by "animal rights" activists?

This capitulation to the vilest sort of behavior is grotesque and has dire implications: Violent, anti-technology, anti-social sharks of all stripes will now smell blood in the water.

The German government is not directly culpable in the current situation, but it certainly has failed to protect freedom of expression and the personal safety and property of plant scientists against assaults by anti-technology activists. (In the United States, such groups have been officially designated as terrorist organizations and are being aggressively pursued.) The state and federal governments and officials at research institutions share the blame - and the shame.

Anti-social behavior demands aggressive, unequivocal societal responses, not cowardly capitulation. Vigorous prosecution and punishment of criminal actions should be accompanied by university administrators' resolve to resist intimidation.

There are important lessons here. (1) You should not conciliate thugs by capitulating to them. (2) When universities permit intimidation to compromise academic freedom and the safety of their faculty and students, they become part of the problem.

Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was a senior official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from 1977 to 1994. His most recent book is "The Frankenfood Myth" (Praeger Publishers).