The Gall Of It All

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Michael Vick and his alter ego Ron Mexico, those suave fakers, are going away. It looks like Vick will do at least 12 to 18 months in a federal penitentiary for his crimes, after which the admittedly faint hope is that he might emerge a more whole and gentle person, as opposed to a dog slayer and liar. In the meantime, Vick's lawyer wants us to remember, "Michael is a father, he's a son, he's a human being -- people oftentimes forget that." Pardon, but if anybody forgot his humanity, it was Vick. Not us.

It's hard to sort out the high emotions Vick's dogfighting case provoke, the various hues of anger. It's all confused outrage. How could an athlete so bedazzling also be so brutal? Why would Vick, the fortune-kissed, hundred-million-dollar quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, wallow in the gore of illegal dogfighting by choice? Why would anyone ruin animals except out of sheer, dumb meanness? How could Vick, a man with quite glaring weaknesses and a competitor who has himself struggled, punish dogs with death for their failures?

There are those who say Vick should suffer the same tortures those dogs suffered, or at the least his sentence should resemble something in a scene from "Cool Hand Luke": He should be fitted for manacles, and forced to break rocks with a shovel all day in the hot sun. And then there are those milder sorts who think the outrage at Vick is misplaced, who wonder why, as my friend Gene Robinson put it, some people are so furious over the barbaric treatment of dogs, and yet seem to "accept without outrage shameful levels of human carnage."

But outrage at Vick is not misplaced. It may be inarticulate and bewildered, but it's exactly right. There are myriad reasons to feel it, the most minor of which is the fact that Vick is a deceiver. He played the innocent, while hanging with lowlifes. He opened a wine bar on one front and ran an illicit dogfighting operation in secret. He swore he was the ignorant victim of a bad childhood and misplaced loyalties, used by his old friends from the ghetto in Newport News, when in fact he was a ringleader.

He feigned naivete, when in actuality he was fatally attracted to the seedy, surrounding himself with dealers and thieves. In retrospect, all the little so-called mistakes form a pattern that looks chronic: the friends carrying marijuana who just happened to be driving a truck registered in his name, the incident in the Atlanta airport when his traveling companion stole a wristwatch, the woman who sued him claiming he knowingly gave her herpes and then used the alias Ron Mexico in treatment.

People are angry at Vick because they sense that dogfighting isn't a petty crime, but an underworld pursuit. It lies at a "nexus with other crimes and community violence," and tends to be associated with "a whole host of peripheral criminal activities," including gambling and racketeering, drug trafficking and gang activity, according to the Michigan State College of Law's animal law center. People are angry at Vick because he's a squanderer who criminally abused his opportunities and turned his talents to sleaze. He was on top of the world, and instead of reaching up, reached down.

But more than anything, people are angry with Vick because they understand that dogfighting is a gratuitous form of cruelty. This was a calculating, deliberate and sustained cruelty, perpetrated over a number of years. Sixty-six tortured and battered dogs were found on his property, and affidavits say he personally helped kill eight others. Lots of crimes are committed in a moment of passion, with one lapse in judgment or snap of the temper. This isn't one of them.

There is an unnerving ruthlessness to the bloodsport of dogfighting, and to killing something because it isn't good enough. It's tempting to sympathize with Vick's attempts to blame his benighted youth in Newport News for his mistakes. Maybe that's what desensitized him. But it's also possible that something else was at work: galloping elitism. Vick may not have had many advantages as a small boy, but he's had every advantage since then. From the instant he picked up a football he was over-praised, overpaid and excused by idolatry. The truth is that athletic prowess can breed a kind of coldness. We hold star athletes to be more valuable than other people -- and we literally pay them as if they are worth more than others. Roy Baumeister, scholar of social psychology at Florida State, theorizes in his book "Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty," that heinous acts may not come from a lack of self-esteem but rather from egotism, a surfeit of self-regard.

If an animal didn't perform well enough, if it wasn't champion enough, if it was in Vick's judgment flawed, he strangled it, drowned it, electrocuted it or beat it to death on the ground. Vick and his pals deliberately enslaved and tormented weaker creatures, and killed those they considered inferior. The dogs had faces and voices that would have eloquently expressed their agony, and Vick hurt them anyway, repeatedly. The crimes may have been committed against canines, but at issue is basic humanity. Commit those crimes against people, and the words we'd use for it are fascism, and genocide. Don't kid yourself: The people who are so angry at Vick are angry for all the right reasons.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company