Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who was recently identified as the person who killed an iconic Zimbabwean lion, is having a rotten week. As my colleague Caitlin Dewey reports, angry animal-lovers have trashed his business’ online profile with negative Yelp reviews and a fake Twitter profile. When I started writing this post, tens of thousands of people had signed a petition calling on the Obama administration to assist in Palmer’s extradition to Zimbabwe — two men from that country have already been arrested on poaching-related charges.
Palmer is hardly the only person who’s been subjected to Internet Justice, as I’ve come to think of it, in recent years. And these sorts of responses are an entirely understandable response to a social media environment that broadcasts failures of or lacunas in our legal and moral systems and encourages us to feel a jolt of fury with each and every outrage. If a prosecutor in a high-profile rape case doesn’t pursue the investigation further, it’s totally unsurprising that an online movement will argue that prosecutor should be disbarred or that hackers will try to break through the town’s silence. Publish an astonishingly ill-advised selfie, and you’ll get the same lessons in etiquette and taste thousands of times over.
But the very thing that makes it appealing to dole out Internet Justice is also what makes the verdicts rendered in these moments so wildly inconsistent. When we all rush in to try to take the place of a system that’s failed, we’re all acting according to our individual senses of what’s fair and right, and we produce results that seem just as arbitrary. Internet Justice may feel righteous. But there’s something awfully risky about turning our keyboards into gavels without agreed-upon sentencing guidelines or even an agreement about what constitutes bad manners.
If Walter Palmer broke Zimbabwe’s laws regarding poaching, I think he should have to answer the charges. (Given longstanding issues in Zimbabwe‘s criminal justice system, I also think he should have time to prepare an adequate defense.) Tad Vezner and Josh Verges of the Pioneer Press reported yesterday that Palmer has a record of other hunting violations in the United States, a pattern of behavior that might be the basis for a reasonable campaign to make sure that Palmer is denied hunting and fishing licenses in the future and to ask hunting and fishing organizations to disavow him and his behavior.
But I’m a lot less sure that it’s just, or fair, or targeted to trash Palmer’s business before the legal system has an opportunity to do its work; Palmer’s only been identified for a couple of days, and the fact that he’s not in the clink in Zimbabwe is not actually proof of some sort of comprehensive failure. The extradition petition may seem dramatic, but at least it’s a request that the functions of the law be carried out. Blowing up Palmer’s Yelp reviews and falsely attributing statements to him and his business that aren’t actually theirs? That sounds more like a nasty bit of fun at his expense.
Walter Palmer doesn’t sound like a particularly charming individual. Even if you have no particular objections to hunting, his repeated violations of permitting procedures and a sexual harassment claim against him make him sound like someone I wouldn’t particularly want to hire as my dentist. But cases like his are a good test for us: Do we really want legal systems to work as they’re intended? Or, are we really looking for a quick shot of self-satisfied vigilantism?