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Posted at 03:46 PM ET, 01/24/2012

State of the Union and dead cats


This cat’s alive but looks justifiably concerned. (Benjamin Brink - Associated Press)
This is the time of year when we are supposed to write about the State of the Union, that lengthy annual address that the (unpopular) president delivers to the (even less popular) Congress during prime time to give Americans a temporary respite from Republican candidate debates.

In the course of this speech, the president is supposed to tell us How Things Are Really Going and What He Is Going to Do About That.

But when you ask me how things really are, all I can think about is dead cats.

This isn’t because of some strange fixation that I have. And if it were, I wouldn’t be the only one. Dead cats are a fixture of literature and idiom.

Curiosity killed one. There’s more than one way to skin them. Leave one on a hot tin roof for too long and you never know what will happen. People swing them around in small rooms. (Yes, I realize that the cats in question in this saying were actually whips, but it is too-strict adherence to facts like these that spoils so much of life.)

But in life, they’re relatively rare — and all the more shocking.

So when I saw the headline that one had been left on someone’s doorstep, I was a bit stunned.

This was one of those headlines that made you squint at the paper and wonder aloud if this is some sort of sick joke. “Gee,” you murmur, “Curiosity is a lot more politically active than I remembered.”

At first, I thought someone was making it up to prove a point about how mean the national climate had gotten.

Not so.

Someone out there is no longer content with yelling at the television.

The dead cat in question belonged to Jake Burris, who is managing Democrat Ken Aden’s campaign for Congress in Arkansas.

When Burris came home with his family, they found their Siamese cat, dead from unnatural causes, bloodied and lying on the doorstep with LIBERAL scrawled on its side in what appears to be black marker.

Aden’s opponent leaped to denounce this. He hit the nail pretty much on the head. “Whoever did this is definitely part of the worst of humanity,” he said. And, thanks to that one sick person, “cat killer” and Aden’s opponent will be inextricably linked by Google.

Generally when sick and awful things happen in the course of the Grand National Discussion, I console myself by remembering that something infinitely worse probably happened Back in the Olden Days. Aristophanes insisted that the young folks in his day had flabby rears and lacked a good sense of virtue like the people of his youth. If he said that in 423 B.C., surely there’s nothing new under the sun.

These sorts of thoughts were less than consoling in this case. Maybe something like this happened in the old days — when we still lived in caves.

This is hard to joke about. Cats can’t have political affiliations, you sick moron. If cats could, they would all be libertarians, but it wouldn’t matter because they would never show up at the polls.

I don’t know what message this was supposed to send, other than, “The person who did this is some sort of twisted creep.”

It’s another of those overkill gestures that horrifically backfires.

There’s a strange indignation that we reserve for things that befall our four-legged friends. Man’s inhumanity to man is often most efficiently brought home by way of animals. Orwell penned “Animal Farm” before “1984.” The War Horse darts around a battlefield, and we see the conflict with new eyes. A dog mourns a fallen SEAL and suddenly we remember the true cost of war.

Who knows the explanation for this partiality. People, we sometimes suspect, had it coming. But evidently this is not the cat’s fault. And although we don’t all go to the “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy” PETA extreme, there’s nothing like a pet’s paying the price to make us sit up and take notice.

Perhaps the climate is no worse than it’s ever been. I’m sure someone did something like this in 1830. But every time a thing like this happens, the shock is fresh.

So ask me How Things Really Are, and this is what comes to mind. Stop the yelling before someone gets hurt? We didn’t. But could we stop before we lose any more cats? It is easy to get people upset, to impute bad motives to people with whom we disagree. But do this too long, and people start to believe it.

It’s an old canard to blame it on the Way We Talk to Each Other Nowadays whenever someone does an awful thing. People do awful things for all sorts of complicated reasons. They say only serial killers kill pets. If we leaped, tomorrow, into a new era of politeness, it might not stop people’s killing cats.

But it would certainly be worth a shot.

By  |  03:46 PM ET, 01/24/2012

Tags:  SOTU, cats

 
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