On the George Washington Bridge Project: Death, Cruelty and Fiction

19Mar09

In which The Gay Recluse becomes increasingly obsessed with the George Washington Bridge.

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Today I read a disturbing post on the NYT’s City Room blog about a pair of teenagers who broke into a vacant apartment in Brooklyn, doused a cat with lighter fluid and then set it on fire. According to the article, “[t]he cat was later ‘found outside crying, unable to move, but still alive’… It was taken to an animal hospital with severe burns, and was put to death.”

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Coincidentally, I was reading Richard Rorty on the subway, who (via Judith Shklar) defines a ‘liberal’ — philosophically speaking — as one who thinks that cruelty is the worst thing a person can do.

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He also describes the role of fiction in our culture as a means to 1) empathize with those who are suffering and 2) understand our own capacity for cruelty.

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It’s not difficult to imagine telling a story about two teenagers and their decision to torture a cat that fills both of these purposes: in terms of the kids, we might describe the bleak terrain of the neighborhood in which they were raised, the loveless existence they endured for the first ___ years of their lives, the physical and mental abuse they suffered at the hands of others; the slow escalation of mayhem and violence that led them on this particular day to hatch a plan for such a pointlessly repulsive act. We might even try to imagine them as they ignited the cat and listened to its terrified screams, and whether to witness this was as satisfying as they had hoped, or whether they looked at each other with a familiar expression of disappointment. What did they say as it happened? And later, did they laugh or cry or simply not acknowledge it at all, as if they had simply shared a bad dream?

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I remember being in Paris 20 years ago, when I happened to go see A Short Film about Killing by Krzysztof Kieslowski; the story involves a young man who directs a taxi out into the countryside, where for no apparent reason he brutally murders the driver; he is quickly caught and sentenced to death, and throughout the proceedings shows absolutely no remorse or really any sign of ‘humanity,’ despite the best attempts of his defense lawyer. It is only near the end — after he shares a painful memory from his childhood — and as he is being led to his death, that we feel any compassion for him; in one miraculous shot he looks up at the lawyer, who is watching from the window above, and we understand from the prisoner’s expression that something has melted in him, that he no longer wants to die, and we — as the audience — no longer want him to die either.

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In time, I may write a similar story about two teenagers from Brooklyn who torture animals and live to regret it.

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But for now I would like to think about the cat, about how small and defenseless it was, and how the universe showed such little regard to its fate, and how in this sentence ‘cat’ is a metaphor for ‘any of us as individuals at any given moment.’

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And how when we grieve, it is really for ourselves, and — finally — how we look to the sky with a certain anger and longing and forgiveness as we remember that despite everything — and this by turn cruel and comforting — we are still alive, at least for now.



3 Responses to “On the George Washington Bridge Project: Death, Cruelty and Fiction”

  1. 1 ephemerist

    I too found this story disturbing. On many levels. One of the saddest facts gleaned from the reporting I heard (Oh, 1010 Wins) was that, though the cat was a stray, he ‘belonged’ to everyone in the building and the tenants would take turns feeding it.

  2. “…we are still alive, at least for now.”

    and not on fire….

  3. this post really bothered me enough to come back and say this:

    The positive view is that until very recently, our society didn’t punish this kind of crime very harshly. Now it is considered heinous.

    I think as a society, as a people, as a race (human) we are evolving (slowly) with an expanding consciousness, so that something that was “normal” and acceptable (like smoking or slavery) or something that was not even able to be conceived of (like gay marriage or animal rights or speed-of-light communication across vast distances of space) becomes an idea, then it enters into the discourse, then it becomes a reality, then it becomes normal and is taken for granted.

    I remember when yogurt was considered a “health nut” kind of food, when you could smoke in a college classroom or a movie theater (or a hospital), and when you could ride in the front seat in your mother’s lap….

    and when torturing cats was dismissed as “boys will be boys.”

    Now its a serious felony.

    I have great hope.


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