Saturday, September 19, 2009

Chicken Hawks

Now that I've gotten started, I thought I'd treat you to a few of my antiwar essays, which I've written over the now more than six years since the monstrosity that is the Iraq War began. I was moved to revive these old essays (the first of which, "Chicken Hawks," dates to 2005) when I attended an antiwar address delivered by Anthony Arnove, who spoke during the The People's Summit currently being held in Pittsburgh as an alternative to the G-20 Summit arriving next week. Arnove's impassioned address, which pointed out that Obama's policies regarding Iraq and Afghanistan merely pretty up for public consumption those of the Bush administration, convinced me that we need now more than ever to mobilize as many voices as possible, in as many forums as possible, to speak out against the criminal wars being waged in our name.

So here's "Chicken Hawks." It's old news in one sense, but--especially given Obama's refusal to release documents relating to the Abu Ghraib scandals and his continuation of the Bush policies regarding the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists--I believe it's still pertinent.

"Chicken Hawks"

Five years ago I stopped eating meat.

And yes, that includes poultry and fish. Why people don’t consider poultry and fish meat I’ll never know. To make sure I’m covered, I now tell everyone I don’t eat creatures.

People ask me why all the time. Here’s what I tell them.

Because power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Think about it. Eons ago, when our hominid ancestors were roaming the savannah or the steppes or the rainforest, there was a degree of parity between predator and prey. You could get hurt trying to lay your hands on enough buffalo or puma to satisfy the caloric and mineral dosages our megawatt brains required to evolve. Heck, you could get killed. The scales of power were, if not exactly even, at least not radically out of whack.

But we did evolve. And when we evolved, and no other creature really did, at least not in intelligence and rapacity, the scales of power tipped absolutely and irrevocably. Nowadays, at least in the industrial West, there is no risk whatsoever involved in obtaining meat—none, that is, beyond the occasional fender-bender at your average snarled supermarket parking lot. Our power over the animals we eat is absolute; we hold all the carving knives.

And because power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, abuses in the current system were bound to occur.

I was reminded of this truism while watching a news report about the abuse of chickens (meat, remember?) at a slaughterhouse operated by Pilgrim’s Pride, chief supplier of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It seems that a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals infiltrated the plant disguised as a regular line worker, and in secret videotapes recorded an appalling litany of abuse. The tape showed fellow workers stomping chickens on the head. Hurling them against walls. Snapping their necks in two.

All of this, of course, is against company policy, which dictates the humane killing of food animals. Hanging the chickens upside down and slitting their throats, I understand, is the current humane method.

As soon as the story broke, representatives from the plant itself, as well as from KFC and other beneficiaries of the killings, were quick to denounce the atrocities. They assured the public that these were deviations from the norm, that the guilty workers were aberrations, that they would be summarily fired, that safeguards would be instituted to ensure that it never happened again. Most of all, they wanted to assure us that the abuse went no farther than the individuals involved—that the company itself, the CEO at its helm, the stockholders reaping its profits, and the public gobbling its butchered meat were blameless.

But they were wrong.

All of the above parties—company, CEO, and multitudinous beneficiaries, including you and me—were directly accountable for what happened.

This is because when you engineer the circumstances under which power operates without fetters—though not, obviously, without feathers—abuses will occur. When you lord it over the chickens to the extent that we do, when you (we) cook up a contest of Homo sapiens versus Gallus domesticus absolutely devoid of equality of any kind, abuses must occur.

Why? Because power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And what’s true of people versus chickens is no less true of people versus people.

Consider the nearly contemporaneous scandal in the Abu Ghraib detention facility. Once again, photographic evidence, this time taken by the perpetrators themselves, recorded an appalling litany of abuse. Detainees forced to stand immobile for hours with hoods draping their heads. Led about with dog leashes around their necks. Threatened with genital electrocution.

Once again, as soon as the story broke, the higher-ups issued the customary disclaimers. They said these were deviations from the norm, that the guilty soldiers were aberrations, that they would be summarily court-martialed, that safeguards would be instituted to ensure that the atrocities never happened again. From Donald Rumsfeld to Dick Cheney to George W. Bush, we were assured that the abuses went no farther than the individuals involved—that the military itself, the secretary and president at its helm, the oil companies reaping its profits, and the American citizens cheering its War on Terror were blameless.

And once again, they were dead wrong.

I don’t know whether Rumsfeld or Bush ordered the abuse. They tell us they didn’t. They tell us they knew nothing about it until the papers spilled the beans. Turns out they were, if not lying outright, at least stretching the truth by cleaving to a disingenuous (some would say devious) literalism. It appears now that ambiguities in the definition of who counted as a terrorist and in how such persons were to be treated created an atmosphere in which no one knew exactly where the lines were to be drawn.

Whether such ambiguities were purposeful I can’t say. But if all we care about, and all the press does seem to care about, is trying to prove with which individual the ultimate blame lies, we’re going about it the wrong way. Once again, the issue isn’t who ordered the abuses. The issue is what made the abuses certain to occur.

And the solution to that conundrum is, of course, laughably simple.

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

No matter how you slice it, George W. Bush is a chicken hawk, a man who glibly decreed that fellow human beings, American and Iraqi, would have to confront horrors he’d somehow managed not to face himself.

But that’s not what really matters either.

To the extent that we condone or pardon what happened at Abu Ghraib—not to mention at Pilgrim’s Pride—we’re all chicken hawks.

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