Last Friday evening in Sydney Channel Seven led its evening news bulletin with the story of three boys who had tortured a kitten tied in a bag on a Sydney railway station platform. A closed circuit television camera had captured their actions.
The NSW Police Commissioner described it as an act of wanton cruelty and declared he would leave no stone unturned in his quest to apprehend the perpetrators. The news report told us that those who raped and murdered Anita Cobby (young men who presumably also had sporting heroes) began their violent careers by torturing animals. If the cat-torturers were allowed to get away with it, they too might turn into monsters. If not apprehended now and given psychological analysis, punished and watched for years to come, they too will soon become rapists and killers.
The public standards on animal cruelty are rather arbitrarily applied. Hundreds of thousands of chickens are incarcerated in tiny cages for their whole lives and there is little public outcry. They are fed a diet to guarantee they lay unnaturally large eggs. Each day countless fish suffer a terrible death impaled on the hooks or caught in the nets of fishermen. Beasts of the field are herded and slaughtered in the mass production of meat for our family dinner tables. Those involved in these industries are not demonised on the television. They work on creatures less cute and furry about which we feel less sentimental. Little thought is given too to the hundreds of native creatures that the persecuted kitten, now rescued and in the comforting arms of the RSPCA, will slaughter in its lifetime. Domestic and feral cats have wreaked a veritable holocaust on native fauna.
The kitten story touches on deeper meanings: youth out of control haunting dark public places late at night; the breakdown of family morality; the loss of the ability to empathise with the weak and vulnerable. It came so soon after Christmas when so many similar creatures were given as presents to adoring youngsters. Perhaps the hysterical public reaction to incidents like this is symptomatic of our collective insecurity around the challenges of parenting. Can we all be completely confident that our youngsters would walk away when faced with group pressure to participate in some form of violent persecution? The far greater horrors at Abu Graib demonstrate that it is not just children who are capable of inflicting suffering and cruelty on prisoners.
How do the parents of these youngsters deal with these events? Numerous other teenagers have participated in similarly stupid and spiteful pranks but were fortunate enough to do it outside the range of camera surveillance. They can remain pillars of virtue in the eyes of their families. The mothers and fathers of the kitten torturers by contrast have to deal with universal public vilification being heaped on those who they probably think of as basically good children at heart. All of us can probably recall having done things in our teenage years of which we are not particularly proud. Few of us have been scarred for life by the consequences.
The line between childhood and adolescence is arbitrarily drawn. We deem young children to be incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions. When they become adolescents we expect them to take almost complete moral responsibility for what they do. Like attitudes to animal welfare, perspectives on childhood vary from society to society and in times and places of great poverty childhood cannot be given special treatment. Those who took part in the killing of street children in Brazil in the 1980s constructed their victims (many of primary school age) as wicked and without humanity.
By contrast in Australia today we cosset our young and recognise their innocence. Yet at a certain point — usually when they are old enough to hang out in public places without supervision — they cross the threshold. We lose our patience with them and become blind to their traces of vulnerability. We wash our collective hands of them and they appear on television news as little devils.
The youngsters on the station platform have not tortured prisoners of war. Nor have they killed innocent civilians in their homes. The man primarily responsible for those crimes is not depicted as a monster. Rather he is feted at the glittering balls of Washington on the day of his inauguration. But that was a ‘good news’ story, less important and occupied a later spot on the evening news. It’s good to see the hacks who put together the television news bulletins have got their priorities right.
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