My husband had to euthanize a cheetah last week. Thankfully that’s not something most people will ever have to say, because he came home quiet and sad that evening. The big cat had been such a sweet animal, he said, and later, when we shifted the subject to current events, he had this to say: most people have no idea what it’s like to take a life, how devastated you feel, how it changes you.
I don’t write much that’s political on this blog, or at least not overtly so, since I do believe that everything is political, everything a stance, even if implicitly. I could easily be accused of supporting the status quo by avoiding social issues and instead writing about the latest thing our macaws have destroyed or the last marathon I ran that changed nothing for anyone anywhere. Well, I’m still not going to tackle any hot-button issues outright in this post, even though you can read into my words whatever you choose, whichever side you believe I support. I merely want to say, though there is nothing “mere” about it, that my husband’s experience made me think about recent events and issues in a way I haven’t seen addressed much at all, and that’s always worth considering.
Laurie Colwin wrote an essay about what it was like the first time she killed one of the chickens on her family farm. She described the horror of it, the thrashing body, the spurting blood. She did not become a vegetarian because of it, nor was her essay a stance one way or another on the practice of eating meat. Instead she suggested that everyone should have or at least imagine having this kind of experience, so that they know exactly what it means to kill something for food—since eating always necessitates killing. I admire my vegetarian and vegan friends, even though I’m not quite there myself, because many of them have thought this through and decided that if they couldn’t deal with such an experience, they had no business expecting anyone else to deal with it on their behalf. Regardless of our dietary preferences, it would be a difficult thing for most of us to take a life—and it should be.
Yes, I realize there is a world of difference between a sweet, innocent animal and someone who opens fire in a school. A great many people would be repelled by the idea of killing the former, even to end its suffering, but demand the death of the latter—would want to cause that death themselves, would accuse of cowardice anyone who didn’t. I’m not interested in a debate about anything; I’m just thinking about what my husband said. It’s easy to talk about what you would do, and for some it might even be easy to do it should the situation present itself. It’s a lot harder to understand what that experience might really be like.
Last year a young woman in the town where I work was kidnapped and brutally murdered. I didn’t know the woman, or the man who killed her, but like nearly everyone I know here, when they caught him, I wanted him dead. Would I volunteer to be his executioner should he be found guilty? No. Something inside me automatically recoils at the idea. But if she had been my sister, my daughter, my best friend? Then yes, I’m willing to bet I would gladly pull the trigger or the switch or choke him with my bare hands. Blood lust is a seductive thing; those who have it frequently believe they are on the side of the angels. But this is not a simplistic ethical issue along the lines of “is it right to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family.” I’m talking about lives, not loaves. Even if we give it different names, be it murder or justice, an action that is deeply repellent in one situation and deeply desired in another is not one to be taken lightly.
Again, you can read into these words whatever you choose, since that’s pretty much what we do with words. And that’s fine—heck, I’m just glad someone’s reading at all—though I’m not trying to persuade anyone of anything. This is not about a stance or a side but an experience, one I hope I never have to go through but still feel compelled to think about, in my time here as a living thing.