I took my rifle, an old .44 Winchester and much too small to kill an elephant, but I thought the noise might be useful in terrorem.
–George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”
Whenever I feel sadness about an animal, about a story that illustrates the tragedy of the natural world in the 21st century, or most any tragedy of any kind, I find that the best antidote is the wishy-washy, by-committee voice of the modern editorial page. To wit:
We weren’t there.
We don’t know if this outcome was inevitable.
It is indeed a philosophical question.
And we’re not here now to second-guess the police. They faced a difficult, unpredictable situation and may have done the best they could.
We’re not saying they didn’t. We’re just saying that they may not have.
But we hope metropolitan Chicago comes away from this episode with more than one dead cougar and a communal sadness that perhaps didn’t have to be.
Or maybe it did. [Insert discourse on ontology.]
You can argue, as some wildlife experts did Tuesday, that the shooting was justified. That it was the safest thing to do, given that a tranquilizer can take several minutes to work, and may not work at all if the animal is highly agitated.
You could, if you were a wildlife expert. Or there. But if you’re an editorial writer, you could . . . well, not argue that it wasn’t justified or the safest thing to do . . . but you could point out that other people could argue . . . something else.
But we’d like to think that there’s a reliable protocol in place, with both police and animal control officers, that errs on the side of trying to preserve the life of the lost animal.
We suggest a cougar protocol. A reliable one. Does the cougar have a cop protocol? I would like to think so.
Not of shooting and then resolving the ambiguities in favor of that decision.
Here in America, we shoot first and, um, resolve the ambiguities in favor of the decision later.
Which is why we also hope that the city is fully prepared to handle the next cougar.
Which should be around . . . let me check my notes . . . hey, here’s something from the Tribune: “The unexpected visit fascinated researchers and put police officers in the unusual dilemma of balancing public safety with the beauty of an animal not seen in Chicago since the city’s founding in the 19th Century.” Perhaps they can get risk junkie Richard Posner to consult on wandering-North-Dakotan-cougar odds vs. animal control response times vs. historical cougar protocol effectiveness.
If you are thinking that I am just having unfair sport with a piece of writing that was destined to be boilerplate and wondering what I would have done (other than argue in favor of an editorial on the authorization of torture in the White House and then go hide in the bathroom), I probably just would have run the last few paragraphs from Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” and called it a day knowing that people would have been reading something more interesting than I could have written. But I think the problem is a bit more general:
Way back in the day I wanted to write for a newspaper editorial page. I even interned at one. And I felt like I had the chops, until I found myself having to write editorials about stuff I didn’t know about and wasn’t interested in, using arguments I didn’t even agree with. I was really bad at that.
I was told that doing so is not merely a good intellectual exercise, which is true as far as it goes, but also an important aspect of the intellectual honesty of the editorial process.
What I never could reconcile is that when a politician, the odds-on subject of the average editorial, is obligated, as part of the job, to immediately form a pithy opinion about complex and resonant events he or she doesn’t understand and isn’t interested in, using arguments that have evolved somewhat arbitrarily from the general stance of the larger institution that he or she is part of, it is considered at best an unfortunate necessity (cf. John McCain, maverick, etc) or at worst some kind of abject character flaw (cf. Mitt Romney, empty vessel, etc).
Then I realized that by writing opinion pieces, or blogging, I could always make arguments I thought were right, about subjects I cared deeply about, and I could sign my own name to them and not have to keep deleting the first-person pronoun, at the cost of not being forced to work through the paradox I described in the paragraph above. I am lazy; QED.