Last week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released an undercover videotape made at the Pilgrim's Pride slaughterhouse, which supplies KFC restaurants. It shows workers kicking and stomping chickens and smashing them against walls. PETA also supplied eyewitness testimony: We were told of employees "ripping birds' beaks off, spray-painting their faces, twisting their heads off, spitting tobacco into their mouths and eyes and breaking them in half -- all while the birds are still alive."
The sickening images echo the snapshots and videotapes that found their way out of another inhumane facility: Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
In both Baghdad and Moorefield, W.Va., a simple cruel dynamic was at work. When humans have unchecked power over those they see as inferior, they may abuse it. Slaughterhouse workers do not expect to be chastised for hurting animals. And the American soldiers at Abu Ghraib clearly did not expect punishment, or they would not have posed for photographs. In both instances, laws or treaties that should have protected against the abuses were unknown or ignored. That is not surprising: Where much abuse is allowed, the protections that do exist are unlikely to be taken seriously.
The Department of Justice has considered in detail when prisoners in the war on terror may be exempt from the humane protections of the Geneva Convention. The government has long since made that leap with animals. Chickens, for example, are exempt from the U.S. Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. Though states have animal cruelty statutes that should protect all animals against egregious abuse, those statutes generally exempt "standard agricultural practices."
And what constitutes "standard" practice? Keeping the birds conscious but paralyzed, hearts beating through most of the slaughter process so that they "bleed out" efficiently. After slaughter, the animals are de-feathered in tanks of scalding water. Records acquired under the Freedom of Information Act tell us that millions of chickens every year enter the scalding tanks while still alive.
Throwing chickens against walls and stomping on them are practices that are not exempt "standard" practices. But how does that abuse, captured on the PETA tape, really differ from the legal abuse inflicted every day? Only in that it has no economic justification. Where so much abuse is sanctioned, it isn't surprising that the workers think the chickens and the rules protecting them don't matter.
Something similar can be said about the American soldiers in Iraq. In a place where American planes bomb residential areas in pursuit of terrorists who may not have been there at all, and where children are shot by American soldiers at checkpoints, "standard practices" slide easily toward abuse. At Abu Ghraib, the humiliation of the enemy started with what was apparently routine -- for example, hooding prisoners.
Also common to both situations are issues of status and authority. Slaughterhouse work is unpleasant and poorly paid, and the workers are among society's powerless. At Abu Ghraib, the soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners were from the lower ranks of the Army. But both the slaughterhouse workers and the soldiers could assert some power, the power they had over their charges.
We know that some humans will seek superiority over others by dominating and humiliating them. That should warn us that abuse is possible whenever power is unchecked, especially in a system constructed to inflict violence on beings seen as inferior. We look forward to the day when countries don't go to war lightly and don't cover up civilian casualties under the rubric of "collateral damage." And we hope that, in countries where alternative foods are easily available, animals will no longer be mass-produced to be killed and eaten.
Until that day comes, let us at least acknowledge the human tendency to mistreat those with less power and standing, particularly in inherently violent circumstances. We must realize that we cannot rely on the assurances of those who profit from abuse, whether in war or at the slaughterhouse, when they tell us that the innocent are being protected.
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton. Karen Dawn is the host of "Watchdog" on KPFK radio and runs the animal advocacy group DawnWatch .com.