it's not often that barack obama says something that makes me want to tell him to shut the hell up (especially compared to other people who've had his job), but this week when he defended convicted felon michael vick as deserving of a second chance, i'm pretty sure i felt myself vurp.
i'll reveal my bias up front here: i'm an animal lover to the point where crimes against animals often disturb and infuriate me more than those against people. like crimes perpetrated against children, i feel that the victimization of those least able to protect themselves and most vulnerable to adult human violence is degenerate in its most literal sense- such actions involve a regression in basic humanity. so to say that i have no sympathy with vick about the nature of his crimes is a gross understatement.
although i don't want to go over the details of the world of dogfighting (i'm trying to cut back on the number of anti-depressants i need to take), it's worth it to keep in mind that the charges to which vick plead guilty involved training dogs to viciously attack and kill each other and killing those who did not perform not by humane methods, but by hanging, electrocution, and in one case beating the dog to death by slamming its body repeatedly into the ground. there are ample studies tying violence against animals to later violence against humans. although none of those studies have focused in any way on dogfighting, it is safe to say that such actions are indicative of a profound disregard for suffering and for life.
that said, i don't want to make it sound like i believe vicks can never be rehabilitated. whether his lack of empathy is congenital or learned would require a great deal of study of his past and his character. and i certainly don't want to make it sound like i oppose the idea of rehabilitation of criminals as a general idea. the vast majority of people convicted of crimes deserve the second chance that barack obama praises. i just happen to think that obama picked a really lousy case to hold up as the example of the value of giving someone a second chance.
first, let's address the question of remorse. vick has stated that he knew what he was doing was wrong while it was happening. despite this realisation, he made no effort to stop the dog-fighting ring, although, as the ring's landlord and financier, he could easily have done so. when charges were brought against him, he did not immediately confess and plead guilty, but rather chose to issue a statement through his lawyer that he looked forward to clearing his name. if we take him at his word that he knew what he was doing was wrong, his refusal to stop or confess to his activities is indicative of an unwillingness to take responsibilities for his actions. if we choose instead to beliece that he was lying about realising that what he was doing was wrong, it would implying that he exhibited symptoms of psychopathy, unable to distinguish "good" from "bad" behaviour.
already, this forces us to view his later statements of remorse with a skeptical eye. but, given that it is the corrections process that is actually supposed to purge one of criminal instinct and bring an awareness of the harm done, we still need to look at what he's said since his time in jail. here are a few statements i've culled from a press conference given when he signed with the philadelphia eagles after his release. (you can read the full article here.)
"For the life of me, I can't understand why I was involved in such pointless activity... Why did I risk so much at the pinnacle of my career?"
"There was a point in my life where I felt it was wrong and I knew it was wrong... To this day I have to live with that shame and that embarrassment."
"I paid my debt to society. I spent two years in prison... That was a humbling experience. I can't explain how deeply hurt and how sorry I was."
(note- the ellipses in these quotes are mine and indicate only edits from the text of the article. the quotes have not been altered in any way from the source.)
i've looked at these quotes for a while. i can certainly see that vick believes he did something stupid, that he now feels stupid for getting involved and that prison was a traumatic experience for him. what i don't see anywhere in those statements is a modicum of remorse or responsibility. the only time in which he mentions a remorseful word ("sorry"), it seems to refer not to feeling badly about what he did, but about the punishment he received for it."
vick has also said that he "allowed someone who didn't have my best interests at heart to take all that away from me." (here) this would make it appear that vick still takes no responsibility for what he has done. remorse without responsibility is logically impossible. you cannot regret what you have done while still being in denial that you were responsible for your actions.
and then, of course, you have vick's infamous statement that he wants a pet dog and that he doesn't like having to tell his kids that they can't have one. (do you think he explains exactly why they can't have one?) aside from their value as a bizarre sort of comedy, these statements are disturbing in that they are never followed by an admission of understanding why he shouldn't be allowed to own pets. to him, serving time has been a baptism. whatever sins tainted him before, they have been burnt away by jail and he has been born anew.
dear mr. obama: a second chance shouldn't be granted on the basis of time served. it should be granted because the person in question actually understands why what they did was harmful and deserving of censure.
i think it also bears looking at the thorny issue of class and money in this case. to say that a kid raised dirt poor who robs a liquor store deserves a second chance is reasonable. circumstances would dictate that this sort of behviour was normalised in the environment and that the decisions about right and wrong may well be legitimately clouded. and vick does in fact come from a rough background. he has credited football with keeping him off the streets. and his remarkable talents allowed him to rise to the pinnacle of his sport, earning the sort of money that the rest of us may only dream of and living a life of privilege and plenty. until the revelations of his dogfighting pursuits came to light, vick appeared to be a real role model, the kind of guy you want your kids to emulate.
the problem is that, unlike our hypothetical kid robbing a liquor store, a life of privilege means that one doesn't have to resort to crime in order to gain larger sums of money than one could get through honest means. when someone as wealthy as michael vick decides to commit a crime, the clear implication is that he is flouting the law- he commits these acts because he can and because, for him, it's fun.
i believe that equal justice for all is an important principle and it troubles me that i'm essentially advocating that vick be judged differently than if he were a poor hustler trying to make a few bucks from a fighting ring. at the same time, i believe that context is important and that to treat this case the same as any other, without acknowledging vick's utter lack of need of any income derived from his actions, is to ignore something fundamental.
while vick may moan about having thrown away his all that he had earned in his nfl career, it's important to note that, at no time, was he actually threatened with losing anything but his job and a large chunk of his $37 million signing bonus with the atlanta falcons. (he was eventually forced to repay a little more than half.) no one was going to take away his home, or the money he had earned from the nfl or from his stellar line-up of corporate sponsors. true, his ability to profit in the future was at risk, but i'll venture a guess that he was unlikely to have ever faced the possibility of living on the streets simply from the conviction.
if vick had been poor, the title of felon would have meant a lot more. it would have excluded him from a huge number of jobs, since most insurance companies will not grant a bond to a convicted felon. it would certainly have prevented him from owning a firearm or working in a job where carrying a weapon was required. in short, it would have greatly curtailed his ability to improve his life even after he had "served his time".
instead, vick has returned to his old job, with a multi-million dollar contract, almost as if nothing ever happened. yes, the owners and coaches of the philadelphia eagles are likely less concerned with giving michael vick a second chance than they are with winning games and putting arses in seats, but the cynicism of their actions doesn't negate the fact that vick's "second chance" was pretty easy for him to get.
if barack obama wants to talk about the importance of giving second chances, he should try finding an example of someone who wasn't just able to coast right back to a millionaire lifestyle after a perfunctory turn in the big house.
whatever i say here is ultimately sound and fury. michael vick will go on being a wealthy football player and the outrage over his crimes will fade to a whisper (already, a quick google of his name produces no results referencing his dogfighting until deep into the second page of links). he'll undoubtedly retire to a fabulous mansion and live out his days as... well i really have no idea. by being forced to speak out against animal cruelty, he will likely do more good than the harm he inflicted during his dogfighting hobby. but whether or not he has been rehabilitated is something to be learned from his own words and those who would hold him up as an example of successful rehabilitation should take the time to read them.