Jonathan Zimmerman: Why is it a more serious crime to kill a dog than hit a woman?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of"Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century" (Harvard University Press). ]

I am a carnivore. I eat chickens, cows, and sometimes even pigs. For food.    Michael Vick is a dogfighter. He teaches dogs to kill each other, and sometimes he even kills them himself. For fun.    What's the difference? 

  We've just concluded a month-long media gang-tackle against Vick, who pleaded guilty on Monday to helping kill pit bulls and to supplying money for gambling on their fights. The Atlanta Falcons quarterback now faces up to five years in prison and indefinite suspension from the National Football League. Some people think he should never play again. 

  And when you read about what Vick and his buddies did at Bad Newz Kennels, it's easy to see why. For Vick and Co., it wasn't enough to train the dogs to mutilate each other. They had to electrocute, drown, or shoot the poor mutts that didn't measure up. It's truly nauseating. 

  But how is it worse than what happens at your run-of-the-mill cattle or chicken farm? If you're a vegetarian, you have every right to get on your high horse (as it were) and condemn Michael Vick. But if you eat meat, like I do, you need to explain why it's OK to kill animals for the dinner table but not for the gambling table. 

  One answer lies in humans' unique moral sensibility. We're better than animals, because we can tell right from wrong. That gives us the right to use them for food or for medical research, under certain conditions. And we call those conditions"humane," because humans know--or should know--the difference between decent treatment and needless suffering. 

  To animal-rights activists, of course, these distinctions ring hollow. All beings have the same right to live and thrive, the animal-rights crowd says, so they all fall under the categorical imperative that Immanuel Kant described three centuries ago: thou shalt not make another being into the means for your ends. You can't enslave, torture, or eat another human, just to serve your own purposes. So you shouldn't kill animals, for any reason. 

  Most of us won't go that far. We understand that animals experience pain, so we try to minimize it wherever we can. And we're revolted when people like Michael Vick add to it, just to get their own jollies. 

  But we also think that humans are more noble, enlightened, and worthy creatures than any other being that X (pick your deity) created. Our reaction to Vick proves as much. We cringe at the torture of animals, but chickens and cows and dogs don't. Yes, they feel physical suffering. But they don't feel the moral kind, that deep ache in your heart--and in your soul--about the suffering of others. 

  And that's also why we penalize cruelty against humans more strongly than cruelty against animals. If human beings are better--in reason, ethics, and sensitivity--than it's worse for us to harm them. 

  But not, it would seem, if the humans who are harmed are female. That's one thing we've learned over the past month: in the American mind, it's more abhorrent to hurt a dog than a woman.   

Open up the sports pages, and you'll see a constant spate of stories about domestic violence. The roster of stars who have been charged with this crime reads like a veritable Hall of Shame. In baseball, Barry Bonds and Brett Myers; in basketball, Jason Kidd and Ron Artest; in hockey, Patrick Roy; in boxing, Mike Tyson; and in football, Warren Moon. 

  Just this May, Cincinnati Bengals linebacker A. J. Nicholson was arrested for hitting his girlfriend in the face. This was the same gentleman who had to sit out of the 2006 Orange Bowl, when the then-college star was accused of sexual assault. 

  To their credit, the Bengals released Nicholson. But I didn't hear anyone demanding a long jail term or a lifetime NFL suspension for him. To most readers, I would suspect, the punishment already fit the crime. 

  And that's a crime, in and of itself. If humans are really better than other beings, as we meat-eaters insist, then we need to take violence against humans more seriously than violence against animals. But when the victims are women, we don't. 

  You might retort that Vick and his buddies killed the dogs. The athletes charged with domestic violence didn't murder anyone; they only beat them with fists, or threatened them with guns.   

Only? If you think animals are endowed with exactly the same rights as humans, that argument might fly. But if you're a carnivore, like me, you still need to explain why it's a more serious crime to kill a dog than to hit a woman. And I don't think you can. 

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