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National soul-searching over the root cause of violence consumes us in the wake of another horrendous mass shooting. The slaughter of children is anathema to our vision of who we are: we protect the innocent and powerless. We protect the young—those yet unable to wield their voices or our laws—with especial vehemence. Yet, in the swirling, anguished and angry debates about guns and violence, something is missing—something looming so large that we can’t step back far enough to see it. Violence against species other than our own is so pervasive, so normalized, that we don’t even perceive the endless, brutal, bloody slaughter as violence. It’s part and parcel of who we are. It’s how things are.
Recently, a former Montana state official writing in our local paper prefaced his criticism of the National Rifle Association with these credentials: “I own about 20 guns, and have taken elk, antelope, whitetail, mule deer and many game birds. If all the gophers gunned down by me were placed end-to-end they would probably extend from Whitefish to somewhere east of Billings.” Perhaps he was employing hyperbole—that’s a distance of some 500 miles—but his point was clear: he has “gunned down” more living beings than he can count. How many newspaper readers were shocked by that statement—so casually admitted in a discussion of societal violence? How many so much as blinked an eye (these were, after all, just animals)?
Gophers, deer, elk, antelope, and birds are—like humans—sentient; their individual lives matter to them. Sentience is no longer up for debate; research has shown that animals experience pleasure, pain, suffering, and other conscious mental states. Like us, they form familial and social bonds. To deny animal sentience today is a mark of ignorance—or fear. To admit animal sentience is to admit we owe them moral consideration–that gunning them down and slaughtering them one at a time or by the billions for food is wrong. We fear that we might have to give something—or give something up–a mindless, cruel tradition here, a scrap of entitlement there, some measure of supremacy. Homo sapiens today, refusing to believe that our species is one strand in the web of life and not its master, are not unlike the 17th Century Catholic Church, refusing to believe the earth wasn’t the center of the solar system. It was heresy to claim otherwise despite the evidence.
Our burgers, wings, ribs, eggs, and milk come from animals who suffered physically and mentally from birth until their brutal, slaughterhouse death. When we eat the products of industrial factory farms, we eat the end product of violence as surely as if we had tortured—then gunned down—animals ourselves. How can we have an honest discussion about our propensity for violence as a country and a species without addressing the violence that permeates our lives—that which we literally consume? In agricultural states where factory farms are located, a move is afoot to criminalize (via “ag gag” laws) seeking a job with intent to film, undercover, the egregious suffering and shocking brutality that routinely occurs in these hellholes. What do you suppose they don’t want consumers to see?
Gopher? Ground squirrel? Click image
None of this suggests that there’s no difference between children and gophers, or that gunning down animals—not even by the hundreds—leads to gunning down kids. There’s no correlation between eating a thinking, feeling being who was killed for us by proxy and becoming trigger-pulling mass murderers ourselves. There is, however, a well-established link (here and here) between animal abuse and interpersonal violence that must inform the broader discussion of how our entrenched violence against other animals affects human society.
This is a difficult, uncomfortable topic. Human hegemony—domination exercised without compassion and justice—and government and industry have set us up. We’ve been conned (only to become complicit) into accepting as normal violence against all species but our own, making it acceptable to freely and publicly admit to violently gunning down countless sentient beings even in a discussion about guns and violence.
Animals, like children, can’t wield voices or laws in their own defense. It falls to others of us to defend the powerless of our own and all species. This is no time for easy copouts like falling back on tradition or shooting the messenger; this is a time for honesty about institutionalized violence against animals and how it plays out in our shared life as Americans and humans. Such honesty is long missing from our collective moral radar.
Bless the beasts and the children
For in this world they have no voice
They have no choice…
Light their way when the darkness surrounds them
And give them love, let it shine all around them
Bless the beasts and the children
Give them shelter from the storm…
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