When a Crime Is More Unethical Than Illegal

“It’s just a dog folks!!! Why not go after people that brutally slaughter cows, chicken and pork. Oh wait, you eat those animals so that justifies killing them. This country’s priority is screwed up. He got what he deserved, fine, buy the couple another dog and perform community service. Now leave him alone.”

This was the reaction of a Washington Post reader to the widespread out rage over the cruel act of David M. Beers, a Marine Corps veteran who expressed his anger with a Maryland couple by taking their 4-pound pet Chihuahua and hurling her off a bridge to her death. A judge has sentenced him to four months in jail, and ordered him to pay a $1,000 fine, perform 300 hours of community service, and pay $318 restitution to Caisha and Timothy Wantz, who had just had a heated dispute with Beers before he took their pet.

The sentence is appropriately stiff, and yet inadequate too. The problem is that laws cannot be drafted with sufficient provision to criminalize symbolic acts that pierce the heart, or cruel attacks  designed to take away what someone loves most, regardless of its objective value. The crime of killing a helpless animal, any helpless animal, would earn a fine and maybe some jail time; the judge added to the sentence because of  Beers’ creepy premeditation. “I can’t get beyond the fact — whether it was an aberration on your part or not — that you came back [to their home],” the judge said, “And you deliberately stole the dog and you killed it.” Even this, however, does not address the worse part Beers’ conduct from an ethical perspective. In the perspective of the law, a dog’s life is the life of an animal protected by the animal cruelty statutes. A pet dog is property, protected by the laws against theft.  Destroying a pure-bred show dog is a greater crime than killing a mutt from the pound. But taking away something that is loved, precisely because it is loved, is not a crime in itself. It is just terrible, heartless, cruel conduct that offends human concepts of right and wrong.

Reading about the Beers case, I was reminded of the scene that marred an otherwise funny movie, “A Fish Called Wanda.” At one point, the villain played by Kevin Kline set out to force Ken, the hapless, animal-loving henchman played by Michael Palin, to reveal critical information by eating Ken’s beloved tropical fish, one by one, as he watched in helpless horror. I just didn’t think this was funny; I didn’t think it was funny when someone did it in real life, either. Killing an innocent animal, even a fish, to torture the human being who cares about it is gratuitous cruelty times two. Some joke.

I have many things that I cherish, a birthday letter from my father, for example, written to me just hour before he died. Someone who intentionally destroyed that letter would be doing something far worse, ethically, than a burglar who stole my money. Not as far as the law is concerned, however. Those whose perspective is completely defined by quantifiable and tangible value and legal definitions don’t comprehend this, and, I think, don’t comprehend ethics either. They tend to be the same people who argue that there is nothing “wrong” with anything that isn’t illegal, or that publishing hurtful or deceptive words cannot be unethical because of the Right to Free Speech.

Intentionally taking away what someone loves in order to hurt them is among the most unethical conduct anyone can do. It just isn’t one of the worst crimes.

5 thoughts on “When a Crime Is More Unethical Than Illegal

  1. I agree that destroying property of sentimental value for the express purpose of causing emotional pain is cruel and wrong. And, certainly, taking revenge on someone through such a means as killing a pet is not only a crime, but indicative of a mentality that derives pleasure from defiling the weak and helpless. It’s said that an early indicator of budding psychosis or deviance in a child is acts of cruelty against small animals.

    However, I think you’re stretching it a little with your example from “A Fish Called Wanda”. Remember; Michael Palin’s character was that of a mild mannered, obsessively stuttering animal lover… who was also a professional hitman! Kline’s “Otto” character was an outrageously brash and callous criminal who likewise had a truckload of self contradicting weirdities. The fish eating episode was just there to illustrate that they were both quite, quite Mad.

    • I know. Most people weren’t bothered by the scene (I was also bothered by the french fries up Ken’s nose). Cruelty to hit men is still cruelty, and the fish were being destroyed as if they were potato chips. I usually like black humor, sick humor, and slapstick–couldn’t do it with AFCW.

  2. This whole thing reminds me of “Anchorman” and Jack Black punting the little dog over the bridge edge. The only notable exception being that Baxter was okay in the end.

  3. “No animals were hurt or abused in the making of this production”, says the inevitable disclaimer. Yada, yada, yada…! One hopes not. My worry is that kids could pick up the idea that animal abuse is funny from seeing such shows. Of course, they shouldn’t be watching most of them to begin with, but (as a noted child actress once said) “Kids find a way”. On that note, it’s interesting to observe that no such disclaimers are forthcoming in productions where child actors are portrayed in abusive scenarios. Except for obviously comedic ones, one would think that they rated at least as high as animals. From what I’ve seen of Hollywood- especially in this last decade- a stuffed animal engenders higher regard.

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