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Ingrid Newkirk's Death Wish

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(This is the second part of Douglas Anthony Cooper's examination of PETA. The first is "PETA's Celebs: Naked in the Name of Mass Pet Slaughter.")
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How does a saint become a butcher?

I am convinced that Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of PETA ("People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals") was once a good person. What happened?

The story of Newkirk's moral awakening -- outrage in response to betrayal -- is genuinely affecting. In 1972, when she was a young stockbroker in Maryland, Newkirk rescued a group of abandoned kittens and brought them to an animal shelter. The shelter workers told her plainly that the kittens would be "put down," but she had been born in England and raised mostly in India, so she misunderstood the expression:

She thought that the cats would be put up for adoption; when she asked some minutes later to see them, presumably settled in their cages, she was shocked to hear they had all been immediately euthanized.

It was a shock that derailed her. It set her on an entirely different path: She left the sphere of commerce and committed herself to animal rights. The former stockbroker went on to found PETA, which became by far the most successful animal advocacy group in secular history.

And then something vicious took hold of her soul.

PETA, for reasons near impossible to comprehend, decided to devote itself to precisely the treachery that inspired Newkirk's mission in the first place. Her organization now routinely takes in animals, with the gentle lie that it intends to re-home them. It then exterminates them. Generally within twenty-four hours. All of them.

Correction: almost all. Some lucky 3 percent managed to escape PETA's euthanasia machine last year. How these blessed few got chosen is an interesting question in itself. While we are being precise: the workers at that first shelter were not in fact treacherous -- they did not lie about their intentions. They were less vicious than the organization that Newkirk founded in response to their blithe slaughter.

Consider this grotesque moral path. It really is difficult to come up with a more perverse character arc. Imagine Harriet Tubman deciding late in life to become a slave trader. Or Raoul Wallenberg collaborating with the SS. Or St. Francis of Assisi joining the butchers' guild.

Those first two are, by the way, irresponsible metaphors, and PETA's favorites. Newkirk's group likes to conflate cruelty to animals with the American slave trade and the Holocaust: an obscene equation, even for those -- like me -- who consider the plight of animals a crucial issue. My intention here is not to suggest that equivalence, but to examine a psychological paradigm. How can a person turn so utterly against themselves? How can they actively devote their lives to undermining the cause that matters to them most -- a cause that they still profess to embrace with a passion?

The very last person on earth who ought to be responsible for the butchery of 27,561 innocent pets is Ingrid Newkirk. And yet she is.

Even less probable is PETA's habit of concealing its intentions from rescuers: willfully recreating the monstrous circumstance that radicalized Newkirk.

The following anecdote from my last article cannot be repeated often enough -- it has in fact reoriented more than a few people who used to be fierce PETA advocates:

A former PETA employee spoke of one particular incident that burned into her mind forever: A teary-eyed man showed up at PETA headquarters one day with his beloved pet rabbit. The man had grown old and sick and was no longer able to care properly for his friend. He supplied a cage, bed, toys, and even vet records for this pet. He was assured by PETA workers that they would take 'good care' of his rabbit and find him a home. The man left distraught but no doubt believing that his friend would be able to live out the rest of his life in a loving, compassionate home... PETA workers carried him to the 'death house' immediately and ended his life.

This was not an isolated incident: as I have documented, it is the way that PETA operated, and still does.

How does this happen?

The closest analogy I can think of is Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Not the Che from Albert Korda's iconic and ubiquitous photograph -- the guerilla with a beret gazing ominously towards the horizon from t-shirts -- but the young medical student in The Motorcycle Diaries: a sincere humanist, whose encounters with the dispossessed moved him to become an almost saintly advocate for the poor. I am convinced that Ernesto Guevara was, like the young Newkirk, a truly decent soul.

And then something happened.

The Che that was assassinated in 1967 is still lionized by people who have chosen to maintain a comfortable distance from the historical details, but the older Guevara is not admirable. This is not an ideological observation. Whether regarded from the left or the right, Che was a murderer.

He was among the 82 guerillas who invaded Cuba with Fidel Castro in 1956. Fulgencio Batista's soldiers decimated them, and the myth is that in the retreat from the slaughter, Che had to make a rapid decision between carrying a medical kit, or ammunition for his rifle. He chose bullets.

And then he began to execute people. The first was Eutimio Guerra, a peasant comrade who had betrayed their position to the enemy. In his journal, Che wrote about the experience of killing him:

The situation was uncomfortable for the people and for [Eutimio], so I ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 [-caliber] pistol in the right side of the brain, with exit orifice in the right temporal [lobe].

This banal scientific description reads like a sociopathic parody of a medical report: discomfort is remedied by a surgically targeted bullet to the brain.

After Batista fell, Che was appointed Castro's "Supreme Prosecutor." We do not know how many people he killed. One hundred and five murders are well-documented, most of them enemy prisoners at La Cabaña Fortress, who were denied due process: a war crime. The number summarily eliminated on Che's orders may be five times as high.

He is quoted as having said, "If Christ himself stood in my way, I, like Nietzsche, would not hesitate to squish him like a worm." We can ignore the perversity of a Marxist leader invoking Nietzsche, and simply dwell on the sheer viciousness of the sentiment here.

Somehow a quasi-saint became a war criminal. We can only hypothesize regarding this process, but I suggest that these once-compassionate leaders go through a critical transformation when they achieve power: they conclude that their chief attribute -- mercy -- has in effect turned them into a kind of deity. It is a distorted syllogism:

I am merciful.

God is merciful.

Therefore I am a god.

Would Che literally have called himself a god? As a Marxist, probably not. But he did not hesitate to announce that he was prepared to commit deicide.

When Ingrid Newkirk found herself with god-like power over animals -- the power of life or death -- it was clearly a revelation. And she chose death.

Another quotation bears repeating, again and again. This is Newkirk describing her experience working at a supposed shelter in the 70s. It is disturbingly similar in its detached tone to Che's description of his first execution. It is also strikingly similar in reasoning: the remedy for discomfort is slaughter.

I would go to work early, before anyone got there, and I would just kill the animals myself. Because I couldn't stand to let them go through (other workers abusing the animals). I must have killed a thousand of them, sometimes dozens every day.

Yes, that is the same woman who was awoken to the vulnerability of innocent creatures by an encounter with euthanasia. It beggars belief.

***

PETA's literature now describes euthanasia in terms that can only be considered pornographic: "For (the dog) Pepper, euthanasia was a sweet release from the painful existence that she'd endured for so long."

This is not a new metaphor: orgasm has long been referred to as "le petit mort" -- the little death. Rarely do you see the analogy reversed in this manner, however: death of the innocent described as a little orgasm.

The psychology here is thoroughly pathological. No question. It is a sickness of the soul. Particularly disturbing, however, is that the reasoning behind this cult of euthanasia is thoroughly sound.

If your goal in this world is to prevent suffering, then one perfectly rational solution -- perhaps the only rational solution -- is to end life. Death makes sense. It is the termination of pain.

This is very much the PETA argument: life is suffering; hence death is good.

Ingrid Newkirk demonstrates a chilling consistency here. Yes, she feels the same way about humans -- their eradication would be an improvement to the universe: "Humans have grown like a cancer. We're the biggest blight on the face of the earth."

She is no less consistent when she discusses Ingrid Newkirk -- her horror of humanity extends to herself: "I am not a morose person, but I would rather not be here. I don't have any reverence for life, only for the entities themselves. I would rather see a blank space where I am. This will sound like fruitcake stuff again but at least I wouldn't be harming anything."

This is not the reasoning of a fruitcake. Many PETA supporters are a bit on the loopy side, but those are the ones I tend to like: they can be silly in their methods, but most of them have allied themselves with the organization because they have bought into the lie that it cares for the helpless. These people are not always stupid -- some are surprisingly thoughtful -- but they are horribly misinformed.

Ingrid Newkirk, on the other hand, is neither stupid nor misinformed. Here in particular she is utterly rational. Her argument is irrefutable: End life, and you end suffering. Kill all animals, and no animals will suffer. Kill all humans, and humans will cease to cause animals to suffer.

We have heard this argument before. It is, in fact, the essence of Stalinism: "Death solves all problems -- no man, no problem."

Our species was never in danger of eradication by Stalin. He was happy to kill millions, but he did not indicate a wish to extinguish the human race. Domestic animals however -- should Ingrid prove successful -- will not be so lucky. PETA's stated goal, in the elimination of animal cruelty, is a "No-Birth" nation. Of all PETA's euphemisms, this is perhaps the most disturbing.

A No-Birth nation means a zero birth rate. Contrary to popular belief, "zero birth rate" does not imply population stasis, where the number of births is equal to the number of deaths. That would be "zero RNI" (Rate of Natural Increase).

A zero birth rate means extinction.

***

"I don't have any reverence for life, only for the entities themselves."

Newkirk's assertion here bears close examination, given her astonishing disregard for individuals qua individuals. You can butcher a man's pet rabbit only if you abstract entirely from THAT man's love for THAT man's creature. He is simply one out of billions of humans, and his pet merely one out of billions of rabbits: hence insignificant.

Recall Stalin's other notorious pronouncement: "One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic." The way for a mass murderer to deny the tragic nature of each extinguished soul is to place it in a statistical context. Which is to say: you must deny the individuality of the entity that you are killing. You must see him or her as simply an instance of the species, a dot on a near-infinite diagram. Crucially: you must withhold love.

Say what you like, Ingrid, but your reverence for entities is suspect. Your ability to distance yourself from the animal that you are killing suggests that for Ingrid Newkirk, there are no individual creatures. No entities. Simply a species, which would be better off extinct.

If extinction requires a little help from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, they are more than happy to oblige. "In the end, I think it would be lovely if we stopped this whole notion of pets altogether," said Ingrid Newkirk to Newsday in 1988. She did not make it entirely clear that by "stopping" she intended mass murder.

I recognize that my own language here is arguably hypocritical and inaccurate. I have said that I deplore Newkirk's invocation of slavery and the Holocaust, yet I am happy to compare her to Stalin. When I use the words "mass murder" to describe PETA's approach to animals, surely this is a category error, and a serious one.

I have my reasons. We shall see whether they are any good.

What matters is this: Ingrid Newkirk is a mass murderer according to Ingrid Newkirk. Consider her most famous quotation: "There's no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."

If humans have no special rights, then a dog's right not to be killed is precisely the same as a boy's: unalienable. Euthanasia -- the Newkirk version, which includes the extermination of healthy pets -- is the same as murder. This so-called "euthanasia," on the scale routinely practiced by PETA, is mass murder.

I do not happen to buy into this reasoning, but Ingrid does. PETA's death toll (27,521) is not in the same league as Stalin's or Mao's -- that is a very select club -- but it puts her in the range of numerous minor Stalinists and Maoists. In fact, if you accept her equation of dogs and humans, she is responsible for almost the same number of murders as one of the most gruesome Maoist cults: the Shining Path in Peru.

Hence, my characterization of Ingrid Newkirk's personal career arc -- from saint to mass murderer -- is simply a matter of taking her ideas seriously.

And I do take one idea very seriously: the insistence upon extinction as the end of suffering. I am sincere when I say that this is a good argument; from the strict standpoint of logic, it is perfect.

What then are we to do, as rational, moral actors? If extinction makes sense -- if it makes perfect sense -- then how are we supposed to proceed as human beings? Why should we not simply acquiesce, and join PETA in willing the death of all animals, including homo sapiens?

The answer is complicated.

The answer is not to refute this. You cannot. The answer is simply to refuse it.

Do not embrace it. Suffering is perhaps the worst thing imaginable, but it is not the worst thing. The end of suffering, if it requires death, is not a virtuous goal. It is nihilism. And it is evil.

Christians know this. I am not a Christian, and I am not religious -- but you would have to be a fool to reject the wisdom offered by Augustine and Aquinas. In traditional Christian theology, evil is not in fact suffering, but non-being. The further you get from the divine in the Great Chain of Being, the closer you get to nothingness.

Buddhists know this. It is a core tenet of their faith: the first of the Four Noble Truths. Buddhists recognize -- like Stalin and Newkirk -- that life is a problem: it is characterized, fundamentally, by suffering. The Buddhist response, however, is precisely the opposite of Newkirk's: Despite the impossibility of ending this suffering, you vow paradoxically to do just that. And, crucially, you vow to do this within life. A Buddhist saint, a Bodhisattva, vows to return to earth -- to life -- in order to continue this quixotic task.

Yes, it is less coldly rational than Newkirk with her freezer, or Stalin with his gulag. The Bodhisattva Vow is arguably the height of unreason: "Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all."

Notice that the vow is not to kill them all -- which it would be, if that were what the Buddha had meant by salvation. Perhaps nobody this side of enlightenment truly understands what he meant -- certainly, what I do not know about Buddhism could fill many libraries, and in fact has. I will insist, however, that we have empirical proof that the Buddhist end to suffering is not the extinction promoted by Newkirk. Either that, or millennia of Buddhists have managed to get it wrong: Of all the world religions, Buddhism is by far the least murderous.

So: "I vow to save them all" is, somehow, the vow to do the highest good to every individual, within life. It is the sober recognition of an absurd task. It is precisely the kind of reasoning that Kierkegaard advocated in his leap of faith (which is untraditional Christian theology). Death is logical; goodness, finally, is not.

I suggest that it is time to erase the word "good" from any description of PETA's behavior. Again: every one of the thousands of executions at PETA headquarters is termed "euthanasia," even if the animal is perfectly healthy. "Euthanasia" is from the Greek: "eu" (good) plus "thanatos" (death). PETA workers like to shorten this term: they talk about performing a "euth." Which is telling: You emphasize the "good" part, and all but erase the "death."

A first step in putting Newkirk's debased organization to sleep -- which will in fact be euthanasia, properly speaking -- is to recognize that in PETAspeak the word "good" is the special, totalitarian variant. (The superlative form is "doubleplusgood.") It is at best meaningless. If it has content, then it is a saccharine lie.

The animal rights group at peace with slaughter can be said to have many interesting attributes, but goodness is not one of them.