I WAS SURE it was a parody.
"Dear Warden Lappin," began the letter to the director of the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., where Timothy McVeigh is being held, "On behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), I am writing to ask that you make Timothy McVeigh's final meals vegetarian ones. . . . Mr. McVeigh should not be allowed to take even one more life."
It had to be a spoof. To suggest that murdering a human being in an act of terrorism is on the same moral plane as killing a cow for food is so obtuse and heartless that no feeling person could write such words except in satire.
"In fact," the letter went on, "wiping meat off all inmates'plates could help killers lose their taste for blood. . . . Feeding inmates bean burritos rather than baby back ribs might just help break the cycle of violence. . . . Nonviolence begins in the kitchen -- in this case, the prison kitchen."
Obviously whoever wrote this was trying to make PETA look ridiculous. On the crazy-meter, the idea that people are driven to murder by ordering steak tips instead of the vegetarian platter registers deep in the red zone. To trivialize "the cycle of violence" -- which, in McVeigh's case, means the slaughter of 168 innocents -- as a consequence of diet is, to use no stronger term, twisted. Only someone intent on mocking PETA, I figured, could come up with something so callous and depraved.
I was half-right.
Callous and depraved the mindset behind this letter undoubtedly is. But this is no mockery of PETA; this is PETA itself. The letter was signed by Bruce Friedrich, the director of PETA's campaign to promote veganism. (Vegans are strict vegetarians who abstain from all animal-derived foods, including eggs and dairy products.) In its indifference to human suffering and its premise that the lives of animals are equal in value to the lives of people, Friedrich's letter reflects the PETA ethic perfectly.
This is an organization, after all, that thinks nothing of mocking cancer patients to win publicity for its anti-milk message. PETA billboards went up last summer in Wisconsin -- "America's Dairyland" -- that depicted New York Mayor Giuliani with a milk moustache. "Got prostate cancer?" it asked.
In 1999, PETA's co-founder was quick to defend animal-rights terrorists who mailed death threats to medical researchers in envelopes rigged with razor blades. "I hope they frighten those researchers right out of their careers," exulted Ingrid Newkirk. In a letter to The Boston Globe, she wrote, "If experimenters feel afraid now, that's nothing compared with the fear, harm, and death they have inflicted on their victims."
This misanthropy extends not just to the researchers but to everyone afflicted with the diseases they are working to heal. Every major medical advance of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to artificial insulin to the pacemaker, has required tests on animals. Experiments with animals today will make the difference between life and death, or between crippling disability and health, for countless patients with AIDS, cancer, and brain damage tomorrow. PETA could not care less. Even if animal tests produced a cure for AIDS, says Newkirk, "we'd be against it."
For those stricken with dreaded ailments, PETA has some advice. "Don't get diseases in the first place, schmo," spokesman Dan Mathews recommended in 1994. A few months later, he elaborated: "We have a lazy, sick society. People bring diseases on themselves." (In 1999, Mathews told Genre magazine that he admired Andrew Cunanan, the murderer of fashion designer Gianni Versace, "because he got Versace to finally stop using furs.")
The myth is that PETA pushes the envelope a little in its merciful zeal to fight the mistreatment of animals. The truth is that PETA detests human beings -- described by Newkirk as "the biggest blight on the face of the planet" -- and regards their pain and grief with something like indifference. "Six million Jews died in concentration camps," Newkirk has declared, "but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses." That would be grotesque no matter who said it. Coming from an outfit that calls itself compassionate, it is worse than grotesque. It is evil.
It should go without saying that we are morally obliged to treat animals decently and to prevent their suffering whenever possible. There is no excuse for testing chemicals or medical treatments on animals when a legitimate alternative exists. Sensitive people might indeed wish to abstain from eating meat or wearing fur. But a line is crossed when "ethical" treatment of animals leads to shrugging off the sickness and death of people.
The prevention of cruelty to animals is an admirable cause, and honorable organizations exist to advance it. Donors and volunteers who wish to help have a wide variety to choose from -- one of the best-known is the American Humane Association (www.AmericanHumane.org). Like PETA, it believes in kindness to animals. Unlike PETA, it believes in "Love thy neighbor" as well.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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