This text is an excerpt from the Introduction to the book Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, edited by John Sanbonmatsu and published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011, and appears by permission of the author and publisher.
One of my secret pleasures as a boy was to sit for hours poring over my father’s collection of photography books. There, in The Family of Man, Days to Remember, and others, I saw disclosed the strange and varied wonder of the human condition, at least as it appeared to professional photojournalists at mid-century: children in Bombay lifting their smiling faces to the rain, Jackie Robinson, “first Negro in major league baseball,” the first television. There were also many disturbing pictures of grief, tragedy, and violence, indelible images of mob slayings and suicides, terrible industrial accidents and “the war in Indo-China.”
But of them all, one particular image haunted me the most: a group of Midwesterners standing in a circle in the snow, cheering on a young boy of about seven years old as he beat a fox to death with a baseball bat. The boy, with a bright smile, stands with his legs firmly planted, as though waiting for a pitch that never comes. The fox, crouched, tongue lolling, exhausted almost to the point of death, gazes vacantly, a look of hopelessness or resignation visible in his pinched face. Then, dark against the blood-spattered snow, one sees the small, broken bodies of two other foxes, already dead. But what stands out most in my mind are the rosy-cheeked men (and a few women) in their winter clothes, standing shoulder to shoulder or kneeling in the snow to form a tight cordon of death around boy and fox. All of them are grinning. And it is this last detail, of ordinary human beings taking delight in the torture of a powerless individual, an animal, that still troubles me the most.
Many of us have encountered similar images, read similar accounts, of public spectacles in which atrocity has mixed incongruously with joy. What is it about the human condition that induces otherwise ordinary people to murder the powerless, whether human or nonhuman, with such evident pleasure? For it is indeed pleasure we see in faces of whites celebrating beside the sexually mutilated corpse of a hanged and burned black man in the American South, pleasure that onlookers saw in the animated faces of Hutu men and women as they swung machetes against their defenseless Tutsi neighbors, singing, pleasure etched in the smiles of Gestapo officers laughing as they kick a naked Jewish women cowering in the dust at their feet. “In Kaunas, Lithuania, where Einsatzkommando 3 operated,” reads one account from World War II, “the Jews were clubbed to death with crowbars, before cheering crowds, mothers holding up their children to see the fun, and German soldiers clustered round like spectators at a football match. At the end, while the streets ran with blood, the chief murderer stood on the pile of corpses as a triumphant hero and played the Lithuanian national anthem on an accordion.” A German army colonel who came upon this scene later remarked: “‘At first I thought this must be a victory celebration or some type of sporting event because of the cheering, clapping and laughter that kept breaking out….’” Only when he got closer and the scene came into focus did he realize his perceptual error.
The question posed by the essays in this volume is how much closer we ourselves need to get to the reality of our own society’s violence against other animals before we are able to perceive that violence for what it is—atrocity. When will we begin to see something fundamentally amiss in the ubiquitous pictures and TV images we see of grinning hunters posed beside the corpses of elk or deer, or of fishermen giving the thumbs-up beside heaped up mounds of squid or crabs or other marine creatures dredged up from the deep and tossed up onto shipdecks to suffocate, or to be beaten insensible with claw hammers and crowbars? At what point do we begin to suspect that something serious is wrong with our world–that something fundamental may be at stake–when we learn that workers at a pig farm kill sick or injured pigs by swinging them by their tails and smashing their heads against the concrete? Or when we read in the newspaper, over our morning coffee, that in Puerto Rico “unwanted dogs, cats and even farm animals [are] hurled from bridges, intentionally crushed by vehicles or butchered with machetes,” apparently as a form of recreation?
Such ruthless and extreme acts of violence against other animals are in fact the norm in every society in the world. In France, wealthy gourmands can still arrange a private meal of roasted ortolan—the endangered songbird who, by tradition, has its eyes put out before being force-fed for weeks and finally drowned in a snifter of brandy. In Spain, over 11,000 bulls are ritually tortured and killed before thousands of cheering human beings each year. In the Middle East, Muslims celebrate Eid and Ramadan by slitting the throats of hundreds of thousands of live goats, cheering as they struggle in pain, bleeding to death. In 2006, officials in southwestern Yunnan Province in China “killed more than 50,000 pet dogs in five days,” after a few isolated cases of rabies appeared in the Province. “Dogs being walked were taken from their owners and beaten on the spot….Other teams entered villages at night, creating noise to get dogs barking, and then beating them to death.” In some instances, owners were forced to hang their own dogs in front of their house, while their children looked on. Two years later, Chinese officials ordered a similar pogrom of cats in Beijing in preparation for the Olympic games. Hundreds of thousands of cats were rounded up, packed tightly into wire cages, then transferred to what Chinese observers termed “death camps” set up on the capital’s periphery. There, they were killed outright or simply left to starve or succumb slowly to disease. Thousands more were sent to Guangzhou, apparently to be killed for their flesh–Chinese restaurants serve cat.
But even such organized pogroms pale in significance beside the smoothly functioning planetary system of routine extermination–the gigantic, technologically advanced, mechanized apparatus whose sole function is to produce, destroy, and process the bodies and minds of thousands of millions of living beings each year. So normalized and naturalized has this violence become that we only become aware of its existence when the apparatus unexpectedly goes awry, threatening either public health or an industry’s bottom line. Only then does an otherwise obscure system of mass killing emerge briefly from the background of daily life to enter the public’s consciousness, and then only as spectacle. In 2001, thus, it was only when farm animals in Britain became sickened with foot-and-mouth disease (a purely commercial illness–most infected animals recover on their own), and the English and Irish states ordered the mass killing of six million cows and sheep; only when the animals’ bodies were dumped into huge open pits and set afire, the smoke darkening skies over the British Isles and drifting across the Channel, that the hidden system of routine mass violence suddenly spilled out into the open. Three years later, a similar rupture in the narrative of normal slaughter occurred when the Asian poultry industry grappled with an outbreak of the H5N1 virus. Within weeks, 220 million ducks, geese, and chickens, healthy and sick alike, were burned alive, suffocated, strangled, shot, and beaten with pipes — killed with savage and remorseless violence as though they themselves were to blame for the excruciating illness which their own squalid confinement and brutal treatment had made them susceptible to.
“So long as living creatures with physiological makeups very close to our own are reduced to resource-objects for human appropriation,” Carl Boggs observes in his essay in our volume, “virtually anything is possible.” To which, however, we must add: and everything is permitted. The inner essence of fascism and totalitarianism, of atrocity, lies not in ideology as such, but in willed actions whose purpose is to show that there are no limits to what can be done to the individual, or even to entire classes of individuals. What finally links images of Americans murdering foxes in the Midwest to reports of the Einsatzkommando 3 murdering Jews in Kaunas — or rather, what allows us to recognize atrocity as atrocity, whether perpetrated against human beings or against other animals — is neither the joy, ruthlessness, or simply boredom of the killers, nor the helpless terror, anguish, and suffering of the defenseless victims, but the way the two become conjoined in a mode of action whose symbolic function is to demonstrate the ultimate, absolute superiority of one group over another.
Get a copy of Critical Theory and Animal Liberation to read the full essay from which this text is excerpted.