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Michael Vick’s Long, Strange Detour
Posted on Sep 27, 2009
By T.L. Caswell
Another member of the camp that finds exaggeration in the grouping of hip-hop and urban black America with dog fighting is the commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who complains that the Vick headlines have fueled false claims that dog fighting is rampant “in poor, black urban neighborhoods.” He mentions the criticism of Jay-Z and DMX and concludes that wrongly magnified allegations about inner-city blacks make “good copy and unchallenged public belief … [and are] the stuff of a brand spanking new urban legend.”
All this information about dog fighting contains a savagery and bloodlust that will put off some readers, but the dirty job was necessary to paint a full picture of what Michael Vick had been up to, and why so many animal lovers were up in arms about his returning to the NFL.
In the forefront of the campaign against Vick is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Now, as you may know, PETA has not always been a perfect model of moderation. During an interview with CNBC in June, President Barack Obama swatted a fly, with fatal consequences for the insect, and that did not sit well with PETA. The organization denounced the action of the quick-handed president as an “execution” and sent him an insect trap-and-release device. Plainly, PETA will not compromise its positions regardless of who is in its cross hairs, and often it comes across as —what is the most diplomatic word I might use?—fringe-y. But that doesn’t necessarily mean those positions are wrong.
Some of PETA’s spokespersons were breathing fire in late July as they pressed their case against Vick. One PETA representative, appearing on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show,” declared that Vick must not be allowed to play NFL football until he was genuinely remorseful. And how could that be determined? Through a neurological exam and a brain scan. A brain scan? I was watching the original broadcast of the program and was amazed by what I had heard. Was there now a scientific way to peer into the human soul?
So, off to the computer I went. I typed PETA and brain scan and Michael Vick into a Google search prompt, and, sure enough, there it was, PETA saying: “The only way to know for sure if Vick can change his ways is for him to submit himself for a brain scan and psychological test. Based on a number of factors—such as the fact that the right side of the hippocampus is larger than the left in 94 percent of captured psychopaths—these tests can help determine if Vick can ever truly understand that dog fighting is a sick, cruel business. Or, they could suggest that he’s doomed to repeat mean, violent behavior in the future—whether with dogs or other human beings. And given that Vick plans to be around a lot of kids, to give talks to them, and to be a star in their eyes again, the world deserves to know who he is inside.”
Why aren’t prison and parole authorities using this? I wondered. Well, it turns out that a researcher at a New Mexico prison is. According to an online article from a Stanford institute: “Researchers such as Kent Kiehl are currently making strides in locating neurological markers of psychopathy. … ” Wonderful, eh? But the sentence continues, “but they are not yet able to reliably use brain scans to diagnose someone with ASPD [anti-social personality disorder] or psychopathy.” (To read everything you conceivably could want to know about Dr. Kiehl and his research, check out a separate, long article in The New Yorker.)
If the article quoted above is right about the current ineffectiveness of the alleged “remorse detector,” and I believe it is, PETA is way, way premature in calling for a brain scan to determine whether Michael Vick is truly sorry for his crimes; the good doctor has an interesting hypothesis and little more.
Nevertheless, after taking several doses of PETA propaganda from print and television in July, I was getting religion. I was thinking that maybe, just maybe, the organization’s take on Vick shouldn’t be breezily dismissed.
I phoned a friend and we started talking about the controversy. I made some remarks about Vick that were mildly profane and utterly uncharitable. My friend replied, “Isn’t that a little harsh? Don’t you think an ex-convict should be allowed to make a living at his profession as long as it’s legal?”
“He looks like a monster to me,” I replied in giving a non-answer.
“Even monsters can reform,” my friend said.
Drawing on my formidable debating skills, I countered, “Oh, go screw yourself.” We laughed and the conversation moved on to other areas.
For the next several hours I didn’t think about the man who seemed to be working his way ever higher on my personal “most-disliked” list.
That evening, after watching a television recording I had made, I got up from my sofa to brew a cup of tea. En route to the kitchen I noticed that my heartbeat was up a bit from the excitement of the action I had seen. Mixed martial arts. It had been a hard-fought match that seesawed back and forth before one of the competitors knocked his opponent down with a combination of punches and kicks. He then straddled the fallen man and pummeled him until the referee hurled himself over the defeated combatant. The winner exalted himself, raising his arms in victory as he ran around inside the cage taking in the adulation of the cheering crowd.
By that time, the loser had risen and his face was awash with blood, which had speckled the canvas near where he had been decked. A physician was checking him, and the fighter’s seconds looked on with concerned expressions on their faces.
As I removed a cup from a cabinet, I was thinking: Good match. But damned bloody business. A doggone bloody sport. And that was when I had a thought that almost made me drop my cup: blood sport.
Had I—in the comfort of my living room—been part of a mob witnessing a blood sport? Well, not if you define blood sport as killing something: Everyone in the cage appeared to have survived. But there was no shortage of blood, nor had there been any lack of organized, premeditated violence amid a rabble cheering for still more. And, at least in boxing, in rare cases a corpse has been hauled out of the ring. In principle, had I engaged in a minor-league version of what Michael Vick had been sent to prison for doing?
Though I had not struck any blows, clearly I had endorsed the rearranging of someone’s facial features without benefit of surgery. I had endorsed this violence with my presence in front of the TV set—with my eyeballs, by watching two members of my own species spend almost 15 minutes trying to hurt and incapacitate each other.
I also thought of the many boxing matches I had witnessed and, sometimes, even had paid to see. I once saw a videotape of a fight in which a boxer was fatally injured. And not long ago I watched a rebroadcast of a match in which one of the boxers was carried away to a hospital and ended up paralyzed and in a coma, before he faded from public view and attention, as wounded prizefighters almost always do. Is he dead? I’d never heard, nor was I able to find out.
I thought of the bullfight I had paid to see in a foreign country. It wasn’t much of a fight. Kind of one-sided: First, the enraged and outmanned animal was stabbed by a lance wielded by a horseman, and then sticks with a cruel barb on the business end were thrust into its hide and muscle. All of this was done by an enthusiastic crew trying to get the beast in the right state of mind to have a sword plunged deeply between its shoulder blades. I saw none of the glory that Hemingway writes about in “Death in the Afternoon.” But I did see death that afternoon, and plenty of blood soaking into the sand of the arena. The performance was light on plot—humans torment animal, animal tries to gore humans—but it was warmly received by the audience, of which I was a member.
I thought, too, of the duck I had inspected after I shot it from the sky. I recall being awed by its beauty even in death: The greens and blues of its sleek feathers seemed to give off an iridescent light. I had paid a considerable number of good American dollars to put myself in a position to render this creature lifeless. As I looked at the dead fowl, it seemed I had committed a moral crime in killing it merely for the pleasure of doing so—with no intention of eating the kill—and it seems a moral crime now, many years later.
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