Justice for Cecil the Lion

Protestors leave signs and stuffed animals in front of Dr. Walter Palmer's dental practice in Bloomington, Minn. Wednesday.
Protestors leave signs and stuffed animals in front of Dr. Walter Palmer's dental practice in Bloomington, Minn. Wednesday. AP

Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist recently identified as the person who killed an iconic Zimbabwean lion, is having a rotten week.

Angry animal-lovers have trashed his business’ online profile with negative Yelp reviews and a fake Twitter profile. When I started writing this, 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 in recent years. And these sorts of responses are an understandable response to a social media environment that broadcasts failures of our legal and moral systems and encourages us to feel a jolt of fury with each outrage.

If a prosecutor in a high-profile rape case doesn’t pursue the investigation further, it’s unsurprising that an online movement will argue that prosecutor should be disbarred. Publish an ill-advised selfie, and you'll get lessons in etiquette thousands of times over.

But the very thing that makes Internet Justice so appealing is also what makes the verdicts rendered in these moments so wildly inconsistent. When we rush in to try to take the place of a system that’s failed, we’re acting according to our individual sense of what’s right, and we produce results just as arbitrary. Internet Justice may feel righteous. But there’s something risky about turning our keyboards into gavels without agreed-upon sentencing guidelines or even an agreement about what constitutes bad manners.

If Palmer broke Zimbabwe’s laws regarding poaching, I think he should have to answer the charges. Tad Vezner and Josh Verges of the Pioneer Press newspaper in St. Paul, Minn., reported Tuesday that Palmer has a record of other hunting violations in the United States that might be the basis for a campaign to ensure Palmer is denied hunting and fishing licenses in the future.

But I’m less sure that it’s fair to trash Palmer’s business before the legal system has an opportunity to do its work. Palmer’s only been identified for a few days, and the fact that he’s not in the clink in Zimbabwe is not proof of some comprehensive failure. The extradition petition may seem dramatic, but at least it’s a request that the law be carried out. Blowing up Palmer’s Yelp and falsely attributing statements to him and his business? That sounds more like a nasty bit of fun at his expense.

Palmer doesn’t sound particularly charming. Even if you have no objections to hunting, his repeated violations of permitting procedures and a sexual harassment claim against him make him someone I wouldn’t want as my dentist. But cases like his are a good test for us: Do we really want legal systems to work as intended? Or are we looking for a quick shot of self-satisfied vigilantism?

Alyssa Rosenberg writes The Washington Post’s Act Four blog.