As of this writing, tens of thousands of Americans have signed an online petition to extradite a fellow citizen to Zimbabwe. Yes, that Zimbabwe: police state, site of torture camps and forced evictions, a place where – despite its recent adoption of a new constitution – “disappear” can still be used as a transitive verb.
Why? The man in question, Walter Palmer, a 55-year-old Minnesota dentist, killed a lion with a bow and arrow. Granted, this particular lion was a longtime legal resident of Hwange National Park. He even had a human name, Cecil. News reports describe Cecil — who may or may not have been named for Cecil Rhodes, arch-imperialist and inspiration for Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” — as “beloved” to locals.
Palmer, who in 2008 was convicted in federal court of poaching a black bear, claims he had been misled on the subject of Cecil’s residency status by his guides, both of whom have already been arrested and released on bail. The mob, however, has already tried Palmer and found him guilty. A sampling of tweets quoted on Buzz Feed, should suffice to provide a taste of the spirit animating them:
From Pamela Patterson: “I Think it’s safe to say that dentist Walter Palmer of lion killing “fame” is the most hated man in the world right now. Good stuff.”
From MatterMote: “Walter Palmer, you’re a heartless fuck. Some advice, avoid me at all costs.”
From Hardeep Singh Kohli: “Truly. I’d put a cross bow bolt through Walter Palmer then track him from 40 hrs, shoot him, behead him, skin him and sleep peacefully.”
In addition, mob members have flooded the Yelp and Facebook accounts of Palmer’s dental practice with damning messages. They may not be conspiring to kill Palmer, but they are doing their damndest to prevent him from making a living or enjoying any kind of existence in polite society, if that expression even applies anymore.
Neither love for animals nor concern over the environment has much to do with what’s happening here. That should go without saying. If either were fueling this onslaught, we wouldn’t see a dog or cat left without a home anywhere in America. We’d all be getting around on bikes and cooling ourselves with punkahs. No, the mob is running on a cheaper substance: animal-like blood-lust toward a fellow human being.
It would be useless to point out that trying to destroy Palmer ahead of the law requires less in the way of skill or daring than shooting a lion, even a protected lion, with a bow and arrow. Mobs aren’t any better known for moral consistency or reflectiveness than they are for courage. These days, between slut-shaming and fat-shaming and the tar-and-feathering of Justine Sacco for tweeting a tasteless joke about the prevalence of AIDS in Africa, nobody needs to take a life to have his or her own life ruined.
In explaining the appeal of “outrage porn,” a term he coined himself, political cartoonist Tim Kreider compared the effects of righteous anger to an opiate, but he was speaking of its effects on individuals. To explain the behavior of mobs, due weight should be given to the satisfaction that comes from creating or activating a public self distorted in the direction of blamelessness. Hey, look at me, joining an Internet mob gives us the chance to say. I’ve got to be one of the good guys. I’m against that person.
Joining with apparently like-minded people – I say “apparently” because many, inevitably, are also sporting their own distorted public selves – creates a sense of common purpose, an illusion of community. Aw, you all re-tweeted what I wrote about the racist’s mother. I love you guys! Warm fuzzies all around.
Base and ugly as they are, both dynamics are so typically human that they turn up in the Gospel. Jesus saves the woman taken in adultery by reminding the Pharisees at the head of the mob that they were not so good as they liked to imagine. Specifically, he hinted that their own heads, too, might catch a rock or three should the truth become known.
Maybe the thought of any mob permitting its fury to be abated with a syrupy line like “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” strains credulity. Well, I’ve heard it suggested that when Jesus stooped down to write in the dirt, he was threatening to put his money where his mouth was, preparing a spreadsheet with the sins of each mob-member inscribed after his name. It’s a horrible lesson that people will only show mercy once confronted with their own need for it.
But even that demands a degree of integrity that many people these days believe they can’t, literally, afford. As the economic pie has shrunk, any healthy concern for those who might be getting less than they deserve has mutated into hatred for those who appear to be getting more. The buzzword of the day is “social justice,” which, in the popular usage, precludes mercy. The practical advantages of portraying ourselves as more without sin than the other guy (and believing in the portrayal) have spiked.
We’re now living in a post-mercy society, God have you-know-what on us all.