Demeaning Human Suffering

In 2003, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals likened the slaughter of animals to the Holocaust. While this remark was particularly egregious, it was consistent with PETA’s longstanding insolence. Fifteen years earlier, the organization’s executive director stated, “Even if animal research resulted in a cure for AIDS, we’d be against it.”

While PETA remains, and is properly regarded as, a fringe group, comparing animals’ suffering to that of humans has become mainstream in recent years. In 2005, as New Orleans devolved into chaos, its streets more resembling those of a war-torn country than those of the world’s greatest power, news channels devoted entire broadcasts to lost cats and dogs. Many took to the air, almost incoherent with grief, pleading with viewers to contact them with any information about their families as looting and violence consumed the city’s streets. What must it have felt like for them to see television anchors agonizing over missing pets when they had lost everyone and everything?

The controversy over Michael Vick’s participation in dog fighting is the latest testament to our society’s moral inversions. Vick has been forbidden from playing football this season, and it is possible that he may never again be allowed to set foot on a field. His treatment stands in stark contrast to that which many of his contemporaries have received. Consider Kobe Bryant, who effectively conceded to raping Katelyn Faber, a 19-year-old girl from Colorado. While he was being investigated, he said that he should have emulated Shaquille O’Neal, who has apparently paid “his women [$1,000,000] not to say anything” in “situations like this.” That Bryant should advocate such a strategy is not surprising. Sports Illustrated reported that he first denied having the encounter with Faber, only to concede later to “holding her around the neck from behind” and engaging in a series of sexual acts with her.

Fortunately for him, he need not worry about his career prospects. The case against him having been dropped, Kobe once again enjoys life as a star basketball player. How is it that Vick’s activities elicit far greater criticism than those of some of his fellow athletes who are routinely charged with theft, abuse, rape, or even murder?

Perhaps it is the case that the novelty of Vick’s transgression — few prominent athletes have been indicted on dog fighting charges — has inflamed passions. I would like to believe that this conjecture is far-fetched, for it would suggest that we have become, relatively speaking, inured to human suffering. Unfortunately, it seems quite plausible.

Indeed, it appears that even the slaughter of entire peoples fails to rouse the same level of emotion as Vick’s activities: Sudan is a compelling illustration. Human rights activists have been struggling for years to galvanize people’s consciences around the genocide that is taking place there, to little avail. More than 400,000 people have died, and 2.5 million others have been displaced. Children and women have been raped and murdered. Villages have been bombed and set aflame. And yet, it is dog fighting that has become one of Congress’ central priorities. Tom Lantos and Christopher Shays have drafted a public education campaign to combat it; Betty Sutton and John Kerry have introduced federal animal welfare legislation; and Robert Byrd has denounced Vick on the floor of the Senate, suggesting in no unclear words that he wished to see him receive the death penalty for his “barbarism.”

The same Congress that expresses such indignation over dog fighting sits idly by as the destruction of Sudan continues. I would go further, in fact, and assert that it has undermined the situation: In 2005, it terminated all $50 million that the Bush Administration had allocated to finance African peacekeepers in Darfur.

Now is not the time to applaud ourselves for bringing Michael Vick to justice. It is time to reflect on the crimes that are daily visited upon our kind, crimes to which we often contribute by way of involvement and, far worse, silence.