2008-04-14 • Volume 2 • Issue 6

The Great Sympathy Toss-Up

During the first week of March 2008, a video leaked of a soldier in Iraq apparently tossing a puppy by the scruff of his neck over a cliff while a comrade recorded the action. Gawker, a gossip site infamous for posting controversial images and commentary, took the video down and apologized hurriedly. YouTube unsurprisingly lifted the footage as well, indicating that it violated the website’s terms. Naturally, the video continued to proliferate and currently can be found easily on the internet for the rubber-necking curious.

Now, plenty of news sources and blogs were quick to point out that, in this age of soft media – when anyone with a computer can doctor photos and videos to suit their purposes – we are silly not to question the veracity of the “Puppy-Toss” video, as it has come to be known. Admittedly, the video could easily be nothing more than an ill-conceived prank or an attempt to garner attention or stir up controversy (check!) No proof exists one way or the other, as of this writing. It seems to me, though, that whether the video is real or not is irrelevant. What is more intriguing about the whole debacle is the enormity of the public response to it.

A similar public reaction admittedly emerged during the disclosure of the Abu-Ghraib prison scandal of 2004. Outrage streamed in from all directions, expressed by everyone from U.S. military officials and the international community to American politicians and civilians, both for and against the war in Iraq. Some argued that the images surfacing of soldiers torturing, humiliating, and even murdering detainees were proof that the war in Iraq was immoral. Many pointed out that the abuse of prisoners was likely symptomatic of the mental and emotional trauma the soldiers had themselves experienced, prompting discussions of post-traumatic stress syndrome and other psychological effects of exposure to atrocities. It was a complicated moment in which many were forced to grapple with the often-unseen consequences of war and the issue of whose side, if any, to take in a situation like war that is inherently based on taking sides. It is perhaps this complicated issue of blame that leads many to “tune out” the unending stream of atrocious news that surrounds the war in Iraq.

A day does not pass without harrowing headlines gracing national newspapers with stories of the ongoing war in the Middle East. The death toll for American soldiers is reported as of late March 2008 at around 4,000. There seems to be no way of keeping an accurate count of Iraqi casualties, particularly civilian, but most estimates indicate that the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands. Numbers don’t mean much to most people and, in fact, in many instances it is true that the smaller the number, the more likely people are to identify personally with a tragedy. Only thirty-three people died in the massacre at Virginia Tech in April of 2007, a number that pales in comparison to the figures streaming in from Iraq. Yet many of us felt more that day (or insert your own example of a smaller tragedy that “hit closer to home”) than we have in the five years that the U.S. has been at war with Iraq. I for one can still picture some of the Tech victims’ faces almost a year after that single and, arguably, isolated incident.

So is it just numbers? Stalin said, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” In another explanation of this concept, a social scientist named Robin Dunbar gained fame for claiming that the number 150 is the approximate limit for how many meaningful relationships a human being can engage in. The figure has met with criticism, and it is likely an oversimplification (what constitutes a meaningful relationship?), but it is true that many social groups and sub-groups, companies, and networks seem to automatically cap themselves at 150 people. The interesting component of the research for my argument, however, is the implication that one can only possess empathy for a limited amount of other beings.

Why, then, if we can only care about a certain number of others, would we waste our time caring for animals? Shouldn’t we expend all of our limited compassion on our fellow man? Certainly, by many standards. Yet the truth is that we do, on average, care about a few of the animals in our lives just as much as some of the humans in our lives, and certainly more than the many humans with whom we will never make meaningful contact. Moreover, while I may be a sappy puppy-loving (shudder) vegetarian, the fact remains that you can bet there have been more cries of outrage via video, sound-bite, text, and image on websites, blogs, Facebook notes, and any other online (and many offline) media regarding this one poor puppy who may or may not have been thrown over a cliff than there will ever be over the announcement on March 25, 2008 that the American death toll in Iraq has reached 4,000. And that is not to mention the overwhelmingly higher Iraqi figures because, if we had them, they’d be even more irrelevant.

Is this a problem? Most definitely.

Is it natural? A much more difficult question, but I would also have to say “yes.” Each person’s reaction to the “puppy toss” incident is of course different, but a quick Google will demonstrate that many people who would never otherwise bother to engage in the politics of warfare (or any politics at all) have come out of the woodworks to condemn the event as, “despicable,” “inexcusable,” “horrifying,” and so on, ad inifinitum. Take a look. So why this particular incident? Why does it take a puppy to elicit meaningful doses of sympathy?

The key issue here seems to be the perceived innocence of the animal. When reporting tragedies, it seems almost unquestionably important to emphasize the “innocence” of a victim of violence, because somehow the idea that a victim did not lead a blameless life will lead others to respond with a modicum less of sorrow. It might not be something we would like to admit, but it does seem to be true. Tragedies involving children inevitably garner disproportionate attention and sympathy due to the perceived innocence of young humans, and aside from the that’s-not-my-species factor (which does not seem to deter many), a puppy might garner the sort of sympathy it does because it takes this idea of innocence to the next level.

I have watched Apocalypse Now quite a few times, and anyone else who has seen it may relate to me when I say that few images from the movie stick with me more vividly than the moment when the soldiers’ adopted puppy disappears during a hail of gunfire. In fact, you never see the dog die, but, as with many powerful moments in art, it is indeed what you do not see that is most haunting. By the end of the movie, an unspeakably difficult commentary on the Vietnam War, it is impossible to say who the “good” and “bad” guys were – which must have been director Francis Ford Coppola’s intent. War makes such a mess of morals that it soon becomes unfeasible to tangle out which humans are at fault. The question of who started the war in Iraq does not strike me as a question at all, but the growing emergence of non-national terrorist cells makes the question of who to blame, and who to punish, increasingly gray and murky. Perhaps, as with Vietnam, the war in Iraq has grown muddled enough to make only one thing clear in our minds when it comes to right and wrong: that puppy was innocent.

Finally, in my opinion, the problem here is not that some of us feel more for a particular non-human being who may have actually suffered a horrible fate than we do for the thousands upon thousands of humans killed brutally at war. The problem is that we have put our selves in the position where we are so desensitized, whether by the sheer numbers or by the difficult questions of blame and innocence, that we cannot manage to care about each human life lost in this war. I assume that my faculties of reason would eventually step in if it came down to the difference between killing a human being and an animal. Yet it is emotion, many would argue, that makes us human, and, in this instance, my emotional attachment is to the defenseless puppy, because I know he did not fire a single shot at anyone, not for patriotism, not for revenge, not for self-defense or for any other reason.

I am not looking to address the politics behind the war in Iraq here, since they are, I will readily admit, almost overwhelmingly complex. My point here is that an incident like the “puppy toss” serves to bring to the forefront the distilled truth that I believe lies behind all of the politics. The truth is that war makes human beings into monsters, and it is hard to care about monsters. The day we manage to stop making monsters out of human beings will be a wonderful day for the puppies of this world, but I believe it will be an even better day for humans. 

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