Russell Hebets Aug. 19, 2015

About a month ago the Internet blew up over the killing of Cecil the lion, a 13-year-old lion living in a Zimbabwean preserve, by an American dentist named Walter Palmer. The dentist paid a professional hunter and guide $50,000 for the experience. However, after the animal’s skeleton was discovered, skinned with his head removed, it was determined the lion was lured off a preserve and killed in an area with no permits and by hunters also without permits. The guide has since been charged and the dentist is reportedly cooperating with the Zimbabwean government and may be charged too. 

Online, in discussions, in comments and especially, it seems, on Facebook, wildly passionate and often vitriolic statements started flying back and forth about the incident. Petitions were started to ban the hunting of endangered species (it is worthy to note here that in Zimbabwe, trophy hunting is actually considered part of lion management plans when done according to procedure) and even late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel cried over this lion he had never met or had any relationship with. The rage over this senseless and illegal slaughter escalated to the point where the dentist had to close his practice and even actress Mia Farrow tweeted Palmer’s home address, endangering him and his family. The court of public opinion had indicted, judged and punished him within a span of days; and they demanded changes in policies, like banning trophy hunting, without ever having understood the policies to begin with. 

Many abhor trophy hunting and find it morally repugnant; however, a moral debate about hunting is a separate issue. The scary part about all of this is the ease with which society embraces mob rules. Righteousness often fuels a level of passion so great that people prejudge others and even engage in violence without a true understanding of the facts or circumstances. The rights of those who do wrong or appear to do wrong are just as important to protect for the sake of all of us, for the sake of true justice. This is why criminal defense is so important, this is why we can express outrage over an act without indicting the actor before a fair trial. 

Walter Palmer is not the first rich guy (or gal) to blow a lot of money on a dumb, even cruel, hobby, and he won’t be the last. There is an entire business of offering these hunting trips that should be closely scrutinized. And his claim that he did not know that what he did is illegal is no defense. However, nobody (who walks on 2 feet) needs this guy locked away to feel safe at night, and we can let the Zimbabwean court determine his liability and the liability of those involved. We can be angry about what happened to Cecil. We can seek to understand how often this happens and how to best protect endangered animals. But when we decide to be judge and jury we put our entire society at risk. A world where justice is handled by pitchfork and torch is not a world that makes us safe or just, it’s a world that makes us subject to fools.