In Jingling, China, sixteen humans have died of rabies since the beginning of the year. The governor issues an order to kill all dogs within five kilometers of each of those deaths. Rabies squads arrive with clubs and pitchforks, pull dogs from their families, and cart the bodies away.
In Petaluma, California, diners clink glasses filled with cabernet, and toast the chef as they savor their filet mignon. Ten minutes outside of town cows cry out as they’re prodded through a chute where the smell of their companions’ blood wafts from just beyond the corner. Twenty-five minutes later their hip muscles have been carved into steaks and wrapped neatly in supermarket-ready plastic wrap.
In St. Charles, Illinois, a seven-year-old child walks up to a counter and orders a peanut butter fudge ice cream cone. While the sweet dairy treat melts down his chin, twenty miles away a thirty-hour-old calf stands frightened, cold, calling for his mother. From a distance Mother answers his calls, while the milking machine pulls at her udders.
In Sulahuddin Province, Iraq, American soldiers are told they’ll meet heavy enemy fire as they fly into an island encampment. A sergeant gives the order to kill all military-age men. Their helicopter lands as dawn breaks, and the soldiers meet an eerie quiet. One elderly Iraqi man peers through a window. The soldiers brace their guns and shoot, and the man crumples to the floor. They break down the door and find two more men and two women in the house. Before the Americans leave, all three Iraqi men are dead. Still, no “enemy fire” has been received.
We are a species accustomed to noticing the differences between others and ourselves—and “other” can mean almost anyone. If someone looks different, walks differently, speaks a different language or doesn’t speak at all, we draw a line, “us” vs. “them.”
For those on the other side of the line, the rules are different. We treat them differently, and expect them to behave as we want them to behave. At the least we expect them to agree with us. At the most, we expect them to give their lives to meet our needs, to satisfy our wants, or to quell our fears. And because they are different, we take license to treat them as we will. Our laws say it’s okay. Our consciences accept it because we deny who they are—if they look different, walk differently, speak differently, surely they don’t feel the things we feel, or want the things we want. And if they’re out of our sight, in a country far away or on a farm somewhere down the road, their fears and pain remain hidden just beyond the edge of our awareness.
Each of us draws our lines in different places, and we move the lines as we move through life. We all have our reasons. Sometimes it’s a conscious choice. Sometimes it’s what we were taught. Sometimes the lines are so deeply woven into the fabric of our culture that we don’t even see the grid.
There’s a pretty good chance that dogs are on the near side of your line. Maybe cows are, too. Or maybe not. Maybe they weren’t when you were a child. Maybe they will be some time down the road. It could be that one of those American soldiers played with a dark-haired, dark-skinned child when he was young; now dark hair and skin have come to mean “other,” and another line is drawn.
All these lines have one thing in common. They obscure the ways we’re all the same. A baby cow cries for his mother, a grown-up cow tries desperately to escape the knife that will slit his throat. A dog feels terror as the club comes crashing down, and a young Iraqi man prays to his God as his blood stains the sand. Where are the differences? Where should we draw the lines?