Sighting the target

Like millions of other people sitting in front of their computers yesterday, my reaction to the sad story of Cecil the lion was both visceral and vehement. The impulse to react accordingly was irresistible: it was also wrong.

The fifty-something American from Minnesota whose adventures launched such a firestorm was perfectly cast for the role of villain. He was a dentist, a job that arouses pretty negative feelings in many of us; better yet, he was obviously a wealthy dentist: How many of us can afford to walk away from our jobs for weeks at a stretch to go jaunting off around the globe (especially when we have dental bills to pay)? Most importantly, he was an avid sports hunter, not just of the local turkey and deer but of animals that most of us only dream of ever seeing in the flesh.

Then there were the photographs …

This was that guy. We all knew him in school, or at work, or around the neighborhood, and hated, envied and feared him. The Humvee that takes up three parking spaces. The rottweiler that maims your cat. The BMOC who bullies your kids. Well-fed, self-satisfied, and smug, a kind of Donald Trump of cosmetic dentistry, his shiny white smile, his testosterone playacting, his triumphant poses with the creatures he had killed, all found a nerve, then bared down on it like a dull drill during a root canal.

And we all twitched.

The reactions were, to say the least, intemperate. By the time rumors and memes had graduated to reliable news coverage, the vitriol was already knee-deep and rising. Justifiable indignation escalated to a savage, unthinking fury. We looked into those little round glasses and that “whattya gonna do about it, chump?” grin and we became judge, jury and executioner.

Fortunately, in this case the target really had committed the crime for which we were tying him to the stake: his defense so far has consisted of protesting that when he paid tens of thousands of dollars to an unscrupulous guide to help him slaughter a member of a threatened species by luring the beast from a national park, jacklighting him, wounding him, chasing him for forty hours, and then shooting, skinning and beheading him, he didn’t realize that the animal in question was one that people actually gave a shit about. The jury has not been moved to tears by his protestations.

On the other hand, I worry that what we’re doing to the odious dentist from Minnesota may not be much more defensible. He did a thing that, by any reasonable standards of human behavior, is disgusting. Should he suffer for it? Damn straight he should. Is it up to me to try him, convict him, and light the fire under his feet? No, it isn’t.

This man will almost certainly end up in court somewhere, whether in the US on bribery charges or in Zimbabwe for “taking” a protected animal illegally; the public scrutiny will, I hope, ensure that he doesn’t have the opportunity to quietly pay a piddling fine and slide right back into his old habits, none the worse for wear. Meanwhile, his dental practice is probably not going to bounce back any time soon, and he won’t be spending much time on Facebook, and life for his family his going to be rough for years to come. When he finally turns up, he’s going to have to face those challenges, legal and otherwise.

Cecil the lion is still dead, and hunts like the one that brought him down will still go on, all over the world, but the dentist from Minnesota is probably not showing off quite as much of those perfect teeth of as he was. In the end, however, it makes things even worse that this man, in displaying the arrogant dark side of human behavior, brought out more of the same in the rest of us. Now we are all going to have to decide what to do about that.

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