Writer Charles Leerhsen has experienced a conversion. After witnessing his best friend being viciously attacked and nearly killed on a city street without provocation, he has embraced bigotry with both hands. Now he writes screeds condemning not the attacker, but all individuals of the attacker’s race. In a passionate and angry essay for The Daily Beast, he denigrates not only those individuals but also anyone who defends them, such as “certain PC urban professionals who long to tell the world that they are super-sensitive and understanding souls.”
It’s an ugly essay, emotional, doctrinaire, and illogical, employing the well-worn racist technique of generalizing from the individual to the group and back again. Why would any respectable media outlet print such bile?
Perhaps it is because Leerhsen’s best friend was Frankie, a Wheaton terrier, and Frankie’s attacker was a pit bull. Yet the reasoning employed by Leerhsen to advocate the extermination of pit bulls is indistinguishable from that of the Klan, the nativists or anti-Semites. Is it more respectable, because it is focused on a breed of dogs rather than a race, ethnic groups, or a culture? Absolutely not. His argument is sincere and unfair, understandable but irresponsible. The white man whose daughter was raped and killed by a black may distrust and hate blacks; the black mother whose teenage son is beaten to death by white thugs may reflexively hate whites. Hate, however, is an explanation, not a justification.
Like his ideological twins, the racists, Leerhsen has no interest in facts, only generalities. He cites the frequency of pit bull attacks, and attributes them to the breed itself, rather than the treatment and disposition of the individual dogs. Never mind that dog breeders and the American Kennel Club, who know the breeds best, maintain that the dogs Leerhsen describes as “natural born killers” are loyal, intelligent, and gentle dogs well-suited to families. There is no indication that Leerhsen even knows what breed attacked Frankie: there are at least five distinct dog breeds that people are prone to call pit bulls—the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the American Bulldog and the Bull Terrier. Though Leerhsen would clearly bristle if his Wheaton Terrier was blamed for the misbehavior of an Airedale or Kerry Blue Terrier, he doesn’t think the bull breeds (all originally created by hybrid bulldog mixes) deserve the same courtesy. Bull Terrier (the Current Target mascot, and Gen. Patton’s dog of choice) or American Staffordshire Terrier (like “Petey,” the big, friendly dog in the “Our Gang” comedies) they all look alike to him. Just kill ‘em all.
The problem is that “they all look alike” to reporters, too, who will describe any incident involving any of the breeds as a “pit bull attack” and thus make Leerhsen’s claim that “the breed” accounts for “by far” the most attacks on humans and animals inherently dubious. Even if all the attacks he refers to were attributable to one breed rather than five, however, his argument makes neither ethical nor logical sense.
The pit bull breeds have become the dog of choice for illegal dog-fighting and urban intimidation, meaning that there are a disproportional number of abused, disturbed, mistreated, and negligently trained animals among them. Anyone who acquires a bull breed should be wary, more because of this cultural phenomenon rather than because of any proclivities of the breeds themselves (though some of the bull breeds are trickier to train than others, and no one should acquire a powerful animal without making certain that it is under control at all times), just as parents adopting a child need to know about any conditions that would affect his or her development. The main problem is still the owners of the dogs, not the dogs themselves.
If Leerhsen got his way and America “got rid” of all pit bull breeds, does he really think the type of owners who breed their dogs to fight, intimidate and attack, who beat them and train them to be fearful of other dogs and humans, would happily go off and buy Yorkies and Pugs? No; in a very short time we would be seeing and hearing calls to “ban” Rottweilers, Bull Mastiffs, Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherds, or some other perfectly safe, intelligent, powerful breed of dog that was now being misused and abused like the extinct pit bulls.
Leerhsen doesn’t bother to explain how these five old, established breeds suddenly became so dangerous, when through most of the last century they were regarded as excellent family dogs (hence Petey), and other breeds, like the Doberman, were the objects of fear. For that matter, he didn’t bother to inquire about the dog that attacked Frankie. Was it a rescued dog that had been previously abused? Was it trained as a guard dog? If the dog’s handler had been obeying the law, the dog would have been on a leash, and no attack would have occurred. Never mind. Lerrhsen’s mind is made up. “I have heard stories about leashed Pit Bulls killing other dogs,” he writes. Well, that settles it, I guess. A pit bull attacked his friend, and he hates them all. Case closed.
Leerhsen embodies a strain of toxic thought in America, shared by bigots of all kinds as well anti-gun fanatics, those who would censor video games and legal pornography, and the rapidly spreading ranks of fear-mongerers on both ends of the political spectrum. Their signature approach to issues is that any risk is too much, and it is better to stripmine the world of every diversion, pleasure, device and tool that may be turned to destructive ends by the mean, the stupid, the greedy or the unscrupulous. All their way accomplishes is to change the means used to do wrong, because you can’t ban people.
You shouldn’t ban dogs, either. My son’s dog, as loved and gentle as Frankie, was nearly killed by a Belgian Shepherd. Good friends of mine adopted a beautiful young boxer, loving but damaged, who began attacking neighbors. Every member of my family was attacked by our Bassett Hound, renowned as one of the most gentle dog breeds. Leerhsen’s logic of fear, generalization and hate could be used to justify eliminating all dogs, except, I suppose, Wheaton Terriers. How much joy would that suck out of human existence? I don’t know, but too much.
Leerhsen’s brief against pit bulls is incompetent as policy advocacy, but useful for those who would understand the human tendency toward prejudice. All we need is the right combination of ignorance, anger, fear, hate, and a perceived threat to something we care about, and there it is.
Get well quick, Frankie.
[NOTE: You can read the follow-up to this post, as Leerhsen continued his vendetta, here.]