The battle for the rights of animals is not only about animals. It is about us. Once we desanctify animals we desanctify all life. And once life is desanctified the industrial machines of death, and the drone-like bureaucrats, sadists and profiteers who operate them, carry out human carnage as easily as animal carnage. There is a direct link between our industrial slaughterhouses for animals and our industrial weapons used on the battlefields in the Middle East.
During wars in rural societies, where the butchering of animals is intimately familiar, butchering techniques are often used on enemies. The mutilation of bodies was routine in the wars I covered in Central America, the Middle East and the Balkans. Throats were slit. Heads were cut off. Eyes gouged out. Hands severed. Genitals stuffed into victims’ mouths. Body parts such as ears and fingers were collected as souvenirs. Balkan villages, which hung slaughtered pigs by their feet from tree branches to drain the carcasses of blood and so the hair could be shaved off, on some days dangled human corpses along the roadsides. Cattle prods were a favored torture implement in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
Killing in our mechanized slaughterhouses is overseen by a tiny group of technicians. Industrial farms are factories. Machines kill the animals. And in modern warfare machines kill our enemies. Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Somalis, Yemenis are condemned, like livestock, from a distance. Hired killers push buttons. Slaughter, at home and at war, is automated. The individual is largely obsolete. The mechanization of murder is terrifying. It creates the illusion that killing is antiseptic. This illusion is sustained by state-imposed censorship that prevents us from seeing the reality of war and the reality of animal slaughterhouses. Killing has gone underground. And this has made vast enterprises of killing palatable.
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I witnessed the dismembering and evisceration of human bodies during the siege of Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serbs. It was impossible not to make the link with animals. For several years after the war I would walk out of a restaurant if I saw blood pooling around a piece of rare meat on a plate. All blood is red. Hunks of meat from cattle look like hunks of human flesh. The high-pitched wail of a pig being butchered sounds like the wail of a wounded person on a battlefield.
I recently met Gary Francione, perhaps the most controversial figure in the modern animal rights movement, for lunch at the vegetarian deli of the Whole Earth Center in Princeton, N.J. With me was my wife, Eunice Wong, who was the driving force in our family’s decision last year to become vegans. Francione is l’enfant terrible of the animal rights movement. He is a law professor and philosopher who founded, along with his partner Anna E. Charlton, the Rutgers Animal Rights Law Clinic at Rutgers School of Law. He and Charlton have five rescue dogs, all of them vegans. In his 1996 iconoclastic book “Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement” he criticized animal rights activists for refusing to challenge the idea of animals as property. Many animal rights activists call for more humane treatment of animals—leading to the conscience-soothing labels “ethically raised,” “free-range” and “cage free”—before they are slaughtered, but Francione calls this form of animal activism “tidying up the concentration camps.” He maintains that promotion of what he calls “happy exploitation” deludes consumers into believing they can exploit animals in a “compassionate” way. We have no moral right, he says, to use animals as human resources.
His position puts him at odds with nearly every animal rights group, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), as well as most of the major writers about animal rights. Theorists on animal rights such as Jonathan Safran Foer and Peter Singer believe animal rights revolve primarily around how we use animals, not whether we should use them. Francione attacks this position in his 2008 book “Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation.” His iron condemnation of all forms of violence, including by animal rights activists, has enraged militants. Like most other important moral voices, Francione stands almost completely alone.
“These are fundamental issues of justice,” he said of animal rights during our lunch. “These are fundamental issues that require that we take nonviolence seriously. You cannot speak about nonviolence and stick violence into your mouth three times a day. How many of us have grown up with a dog, a cat, a parakeet or a rabbit? Did we love those beings? Did we love them in a different way from the way we ‘loved’ our car or our stereo? Why is that love different? It is different because that is the love of an other, whether that is a human person or a nonhuman person. It is love for an other who matters morally. Did we cry when that being died? It is moral schizophrenia to treat some animals as members of our family and then roast and stick forks into other animals, which have been abused and tortured and that are no different from our nonhuman family members.”
“This is not, however, an issue about whether animals are tortured,” he went on. “The big issue now is factory farming. Do I think factory farming is bad? Well, yes, but so what? Family farms are bad as well. There is a lot of violence that happens on family farms. Consider two slaveholders—one who beats his slaves 25 times a week and the other who beats his slaves once a week. Is Slaveholder Two better? The answer is yes, but it does not address the morality of slavery.”