Jordan Journal: Three Dogs
Note: This post contains some violent content.
In Jordan, stray dogs pollute the street. They become less animals and more like shelters for flies, lice, and fleas. Their ribcages are pronounced, their fur thin and scarce. I imagine that they go days, perhaps weeks, without food. To look into the eyes of these animals is to look in the eyes of suffering itself.
In the past, I have tried not to overly humanize animals. In the States, our empathy for dogs and cats often replaces what should be empathy towards humans. We cry in movies when the pet dies, rather than the owner. But we can also employ this empathy to effectively turn them less into animals than metaphors. As polar bears in the Arctic are to climate change, Jordanian strays are powerful metaphors for humanitarian interventionism (or lack thereof) in the Middle East and beyond.
A family of dogs, made up of five small puppies and a mother, lives on the farm where I am staying with my friend Fenner. On our first day, already we had seen four of the puppies—led by a black-and-white, militant little yapper—attacking a smaller, frailer, dirtier puppy. He was bleeding from the neck and side. He limped dramatically. We tried to shoo away his siblings, but they would always return. It seemed an attack based on territoriality more than food. Nevertheless, when we attempted to feed the young one, it would encourage the attacking puppies.
Occasionally, they would leave him alone. But they would always return. Fenner and I directed our attention to other areas, realizing there was nothing we could do to fend off the attackers. We decided to leave the situation to nature, if such a thing exists in such a human-dominated environment.
One night, we went on a long walk to a nearby gas station. On our way there, we found another puppy, black-furred, on the side of the street. It was clearly struggling, as all these dogs were. We toyed with the idea of bringing him back to the farm and taking care of him, but worried that the other dogs would attack him if we did so. Again, we let nature decide this dog’s fate, choosing instead to remain neutral.
The next night, we again went on a walk, this time just for some fresh air. We ran into the same dog, or what remained of it. He was in the middle of the road, torn in half, with a pool of blood surrounding it. His fur was gelled by dried fluids. We realized that we could’ve saved him, and were struck with a bitter combination of guilt and moral confusion.
From a position of power, inaction is not neutrality. The United States infamously should have learned this after their failure to intervene in the 1994 Rwandan genocide claimed nearly one million lives. Unfortunately, this did not stop us from taking the “neutral” (read: condoning of massacre) in Darfur in 2005 or in South Sudan now. Closer to Jordan, where I am currently located, inaction has plagued American policy for even longer. In 1991, following the Gulf War, then-President George HW Bush stood by and did nothing as Saddam Hussein brutally oppressed a Shi’ite uprising that Bush himself encouraged. Then, of course, there is Syria: in 1982, when Hafez al-Assad staged a bloody massacre in response to an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, Ronald Reagan did nothing; in 2013, when the son of Hafez crossed America’s “red line” by using chemical weapons on his own civilians, Obama followed in Reagan’s lack of a footstep. Unfortunately, when it comes to America’s response to human rights catastrophes, the policy has too often been inaction.
Back on the farm, days went by. The puppies went back and forth between attacking their baby brothers and barking at the wind. One day, we found the youngest brother—the attackee—lying in a shed. His condition had gone from bad to worse. Blood and pus stained the ground. One of his older brothers was licking his scabs, biting him. It was no longer a simple attack. It seemed to be venturing toward cannibalism.
Fenner and I came to a bleak realization: either we could let this dog slowly die and turn into food for his brothers, or we could put him out of his misery. Inspired by the consequence of our inaction concerning the dog on the street, we went with the latter option. With no accessible vet, we quickly googled the most humane way to kill a dog. The best option—shooting it—was impossible: we had no access to a gun, let alone the training to use it safely. The other option was to snap its neck.
Abruptly, a surge of adrenaline came over me. It felt like it was my duty to snap this dog’s neck. I would either do it now, or I wouldn’t do it. I walked to the dog, placed a towel over its head, and grabbed its neck. I did my best impression of how I had seen necks snapped on TV. But either his neck was too strong, my arms were too weak, or both: he lived—his body convulsed, his head twitched, and his neck spazzed, but he lived. In my attempt to end his suffering, I had inflicted more suffering.
The dog became my responsibility. As Colin Powell said, “you break it, you own it” (although this was the fallacy that brought us further into Iraq, I couldn’t shake off the feeling of immense responsibility). I needed to kill this dog as soon as possible. I found a large rock on the side of the road and smashed his head. It squealed—not dead yet. Again. Again. Again. I was almost certain he was dead at this point, but I had to be sure. I kept smashing.
When I was certain he was dead, a numbness waved over me. It was as if my body didn’t understand how to physically react to the potpourri of emotions that engulfed me. I was shocked that I had taken such a dramatic step; I was scared of what I now knew I was capable of; I was torn by the moral dilemma of whether I had helped or hurt. For a long time, I was blank.
I like to think that this dog was Bosnia, was Kosovo. These 1990s, Clinton Administration wars are the darling of humanitarian interventionists. Together, they put an end to the genocides of the maniacal Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, and ultimately saved countless lives. There were convulsions, twitches, and spasms: the NATO bombing campaign killed hundreds of civilians. Perhaps there were ways it could’ve been done better, or perhaps there weren’t. It will never be known whether there was truly a net gain or loss of suffering as a result of the interventions, but ultimately they almost definitely saved countless lives, and put a quick end to what would have been a slow and drawn out suffering.
The night I killed the dog, Fenner and I decided to go on another walk to come to our senses. Sure enough, another puppy on the side of the road flailed—he wasn’t a proficient walker—toward us. We thought we had learned a lesson, that action was better than inaction. So we took it back to the farm. Seeing that it was getting along with the other puppies, we decided to go to sleep. But the next morning, we saw its corpse ripped in pieces, its intestines spilled. It had been eaten by the others.
This last puppy was Libya. In 2011, when Qaddafi (like Assad) mass murdered and threatened to gas his own civilians, the US finally decided to intervene. We armed the rebels (a mistake), implemented a no fly zone (not a mistake), and ultimately facilitated the murder of the dictator (arguably a mistake). Following these actions, we abandoned the country, leaving it to fend for itself. Not surprisingly, this pushed it into yet another civil war in 2014, now between forces led by General Haftar known as the Libyan National Army, the UN-backed interim government known as the Government of National Accord, and a handful of Islamist militant groups, among others.
Of course, these analogies are simplistic—unlike our response to the first dog, it was more than just “inaction” that plagued America’s response to genocides and massacres in the Middle East and Africa; my intervention to end the second dog’s suffering was not nearly as successful as Clinton’s intervention to end the suffering of Bosnians and Kosovans; and Libya, though far from perfect, was ultimately successful and worth the intervention. But they are striking metaphors for the effects of acting (or refusing to do so) in the face of brutalities abroad, as the most powerful country in the world. Perhaps if we shift the empathy we have toward skinny stray puppies toward humans around the world—or if we view these animals as metaphors for global suffering—we will do what we can to prevent massacre from successfully unfolding.