In light of Donte' Stallworth's outrageously lenient sentencing to 30 (actually 24) days for driving drunk and killing a man on an early morning Miami street, a cacophony of protestations has reverberated around the world of sports and the justice system. The main beef people seem to harbor is that Vick got a raw deal and Stallworth got off easy, because what Stallworth did is far more "heinous" (the mot du jour) than what Vick did. It's no stretch to understand that people in line with this philosophy believe that one human life holds immeasurably greater value than any number of canine lives. I personally believe that Stallworth should have gotten at least as long a sentence as did Vick, if not the maximum allowable by Florida state law regarding vehicular manslaughter while driving under the influence. I don't care if the man wasn't in the crosswalk; he didn't deserve to die for jaywalking, a common infraction that everyone who has ever crossed a city street has committed at one time or another.
I would argue, however, that that is not the point.
I am not going to focus on comparing human life to animal life; there is any number of religious and moral angles to be explored and exploded and wrangled inside out. I think we all know that short of sports and politics, arguing religion and morality is about as fruitless as it gets. It's more enlightening to focus instead on the psychology behind driving drunk versus that of committing willful acts of violence against living beings. To me, what Michael Vick did to those dogs is much scarier than what Donte' Stallworth did to Mario Reyes.
Take a moment to reflect on this idea. In our society, we are accustomed to a certain amount of violence and tragedy. We are accustomed to certain types of violence and tragedy. It is no exaggeration to say we are bombarded with violence and tragedy every day. To an extent, our desensitization is simply a survival mechanism; we must become inured so that we don't lose our minds from grief and nihilism. We are also implicitly accepting of a variety of irresponsible behaviors. Drinking like a fish and making very bad choices is one of those.
How often have we laughed at our drunken friend stumbling down the street shouting lewdly, after we egged him on to down just one more tequila shot? And how often have we then offered a tepid, "Hey, dude, you okay to drive?" only to nod in relief when he slurs in reply, "Yeah, man, I'm good. No worries." Because no matter how much we love him, we don't want to be the one that has to fight him for his keys, or give him cab money, or drive him back to the cuts at 2:30 in the morning. Not only because we are irresponsible friends, but because we ourselves are about to get behind the wheel of our own car knowing damned well we're over the legal limit whether we "feel" it or not. Donte' Stallworth is our funny drunk friend.
Now obviously there are some of us who have never driven drunk or let a friend drive drunk and therefore cannot be categorized as hypocrites. But this discussion isn't directed at the five of you. We hypocrites are the same people who gnash our teeth and pull our hair whenever a drunk driver kills someone. Yet it happens every day, whether we hear it in the news or not. And guess what? We accept it, whether you like it, admit it, or not. Because this is one of the types of tragedies to which we have become inured. And don't tell me you're not inured unless you're an active member of M.A.D.D or S.A.D.D. or some other organization battling to eliminate drunk driving from our streets. Until you are moved to do something about it, you're inured.
Where we start to get creeped out, feel the hairs on the back of our necks standing alert, get that queasy feeling settling into the pits of our stomachs, is when we hear tales of uncommon violence. Anyone who's watched an episode of CSI or Googled serial killers can tell you that an early warning sign is committing violence against animals. Sit down, I'm not suggesting Vick is a serial killer or will ever become one. What I am calling out is the mentality that would allow a person to enjoy torturing creatures who can feel as much pain as humans feel. Why is that entertaining? Why would someone bankroll a torture ring? Because it's a cultural thing in many parts of the South, and they were "just dogs"? Because it makes money? Because the others involved were Vick's boys? Well, excuse the hell out of me, but anyone who gets off on hanging, drowning, strangling, electrocuting or otherwise torturing another living being is a scary freaking person who has committed heinous* acts.
I believe this is why national outrage erupted around Michael Vick's crime. Not because it's "worse" than Donte' Stallworth's crime, but because we're just not used to it. We don't get it. Donte' Stallworth is by most accounts a good man who made a very bad choice that cost another human life. Millions of us get drunk and act stupid on a regular, but far, far fewer of us actively engage in or endorse the physical torture of living creatures, for any reason.
Yes, human beings are predators. No, we don't have to hunt woolly mammoths anymore; our meat comes in Styrofoam packages with all its identifiable parts removed. But we still carry within us untold violent instincts. In some ways it's too bad we no longer send our boys into the wilderness to wrestle bears in rites of passage to manhood. We need more productive and less destructive ways to vent our violent joneses. Who doesn't want to pummel the **** out of someone from time to time, often for petty stuff like someone cutting us off in traffic? We can accept that, too, because so many of us feel it. It proves that we are angry over countless things in our own lives and in the world around us that we can't do anything about. Where it begins to go awry is when someone appears to have no violence filter and can so blithely enact cruelty upon beings we perceive as helpless, such as children and animals. When someone seems to lack a part of his conscience that the rest of us take for granted everyone should possess, it stirs in us that long-buried fear of the monster under the bed. It's particularly frightening when that "monster" is a filthy rich, iconic public figure with an electric smile and superhuman talent, beloved by many thousands, with seemingly everything in the world to live for and everything to lose by making a misstep. If someone in Michael Vick's elevated position gains pleasure by participating in torture, what does that mean about the guy next door? What does it mean about you?
*heinous: hateful; odious; abominable; totally reprehensible: a heinous offense.
wicked, infamous, flagrant, flagitious, atrocious, villainous, nefarious.