After reading Adam Gopnik’s masterful examination of the American prison system in a recent issue of the New Yorker, in which he examines our fetishistic compulsion to warehouse millions of errant citizens in prisons, it’s easy to conclude that our conception of “cruel and unusual punishment” needs reconsideration. Gopnik burrows through the rotten veneer of propriety that allows us to convince ourselves that for-profit “correctional facilities” are a good idea. He argues persuasively that incarcerating drug offenders is a horrible idea. And he explains why our obsession with procedural correctness is often antithetical to our goal of universal justice.
He also makes us understand what it must be like to be confined to a cage. Not nice.
Compared to solitary confinement and the torturous sensory deprivations that usually accompany a term in the brig, the death penalty seems vastly preferable, if not altogether more humane. While vindictiveness and malice gurgle beneath the tranquil surface of our desire to punish (or rehabilitate, or whatever hopeful nostrum best excuses our collective comfort with everyday cruelty), we must ask ourselves: At what point does the imperative for society to organize itself around a code of acceptable behavior trump the imperative for human beings to treat members of their species, even the vilest ones, as human beings created and cared for by God above?
Now, if you believe it is right and good and just to place bad people in cages, at least you can always argue that they deserve their fate. They broke the rules and should expect to be punished.
But what law did a parakeet break? What code did the puppy violate? What offense did the monkey commit?
Let us set aside the desire (need?) to commodify animals for food or clothing. For the sake of discussion, let’s agree that in order to sustain human survival it’s morally permissible to imprison, torture, and kill animals.
What moral code, however, allows us to imprison and torture animals merely for our amusement? The macaw in a cage not much larger than its wingspan suffers through a decidedly un-avian existence so that we may admire the pretty colors of its wings and the sporadically entertaining screech it emits. The reef fish in a bowl looks so cute and fanciful, especially when it swims in endless circles, tracing the suffocating glass boundaries of a formerly boundless ocean.
If you’ve visited desperately poor countries, you notice immediately that dogs and cats, our household pets, have in these unfortunate nations astonishingly challenging and often horrible lives. Dogs are used primarily as guards, captive noisemakers on shockingly short chains. Often they roam semi-wild, fighting and raping each other, killing competitors over a scrap of edible trash. Usually they suffer from mange or flea infestations. And they’re the lucky ones. Dogs in poor countries that are raised in puppy mills (which fulfill the need of wealthier folks to have a proper purebred canine) spend their early life peering through bars, standing in or above their feces, starving for attention, for touch. It’s heartbreaking.
And for what? So we can be entertained.
Finding myself in a very poor country recently, I was confronted by the usual heartbreaks one encounters in these places. I heard myself saying out loud to the imprisoned puppies and parrots, the birds panicky and the dogs manic, that I was sorry. “I apologize,” I told them. “I’m sorry that my species can be so cruel.”