July 29, 2015
Wow! The wrath of the Internet has descended full-force on Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil the Lion, a beloved inhabitant of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Palmer and his guides lured Cecil from the preserve and wounded him with an arrow. The lion fled, and the hunters killed him two days later when they finally tracked him down. Then the hunters had their oops moment: they found a GPS collar on Cecil, and then they tried and failed to destroy it, suggesting they knew they done wrong.
Palmer, an experienced big game hunter (who’s also had previous run-ins with the law), does not deny killing Cecil. He released a statement saying he regrets killing the pride leader, not because he was a magnificent animal (which, one presumes, is exactly why Palmer wanted the lion’s head for a trophy), but because Cecil is a known and popular icon of the national park. I’m a live and let live gal, so I take a dim view of recreational hunting. Deer hunters get a pass (I too love venison), but there’s a world of difference between killing a deer to stock the freezer and beheading and skinning a lion, elephant, or rhinoceros to show off. I abhor what Palmer has done, and hope not only his safari guides (who have been arrested) but he himself will be prosecuted for his crime.
But this letter’s not about hunting.
It’s about the online reaction. Do not get me wrong: I share the outrage of the thousands (yes, THOU-SANDS) of people who have logged onto Yelp and left a negative review of Palmer’s dentistry practice. When the story first broke, I commented on a friend’s Facebook wall how people who want to kill lions should have to try doing it in an arena with a sword. Then I looked at those Yelp reviews and felt the sting of shame. The comments range from a satirical account of sitting in Palmer’s dentistry chair and having a filling go awry, to death threats. You cannot miss the virtual pitchfork waving on Facebook and Twitter, with lots of people calling for Palmer’s head—literally.
Doesn’t anyone else find this disturbing? Many friends feel that justice is being served, but can it be justice when it’s delivered by a mob? We’ve read story after story of people’s lives being ruined by Internet backlash, often for deeds far less heinous than Palmer’s. Justine Sacco tweeted a racist remark about AIDS in Africa (which she meant to be satirical). Alicia Ann Lynch posted a photo of herself dressed for Halloween as a Boston Marathon bombing victim. Both lost their jobs, not because of their poor judgment, but because of their Internet infamy. These women made foolish, perhaps even reprehensible, choices, but did they deserve to be fired? Did they deserve to be threatened with rape and death, and have their relatives threatened with the same? I think a sharply worded rebuke and disapproving glare were more commensurate with their actions. Not the everlasting Scarlet Letter that comes with Internet censure.
In real life, when the mob prevails, it burns innocents accused of witchcraft, guillotines children, imprisons poets, and slaughters ordinary people who happen to worship differently. I wrote this letter after watching online friends clap their hands in glee as the online backlash led Palmer to close his dentistry practice. Does he deserve to be pilloried? I might aim a rotten tomato at his nose while he stood in the stocks, if we had a real public square. I would support extraditing him to Zimbabwe to face prosecution for his crime (and let me reiterate—it was a crime). But I don’t think his children and the employees of his dental practice deserve to stand in the stocks alongside him, while the mob decides whether to carry out the death threats.
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