Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Justice for Harambe … or Revenge?

Photo source: Nature World News.
A recent petition on, titled “Justice for Harambe”, makes me wonder if anyone really knows what justice is anymore.

Harambe’s Death

On Saturday, May 28, a four-year-old boy managed to slip out of his mother’s sight at the Cincinnati Zoo. Nothing new or surprising in that. However, this four-year-old boy made short work of a series of barriers separating visitors from the gorillas at the zoo’s Gorilla World, and fell fifteen feet into the moat surrounding the habitat. Harambe, a 17-year-old western lowland gorilla, found the boy and — well, the boy survived, and has all his limbs. Harambe, on the other hand, was shot to keep the boy from further harm.

Strange to say, very little public concern has been devoted to questioning the design of the barriers. No, most of what can with some stretch of the imagination be called concern has been devoted to punishing the boy’s mother for the death of the gorilla (and, incidentally, for letting the kid out of her sight).

The petition is demanding, based on eyewitness claims for which it offers no source, “an investigation of the child’s home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence that may result in serious bodily harm or even death.” Note the words “further incidents of parental negligence”; that the parents are already guilty of one count is a verdict immune to challenge or contradiction. The Court of Public Opinion has already spoken.

The “Monday Morning Quarterbacks”

Four-year-old boys getting away from their parents, as I’ve said, is hardly an unheard-of event, and
ought not incur a presumption of negligence. It’s just not humanly possible to watch your children every second of every day, regardless of where you are or what you’re doing. Silly me, I think the mother had a reasonable presumption that the barriers were sufficient to keep a four-year-old out of the gorilla habitat. Despite their earlier protestations that the barriers had sufficed for thirty-eight years, the zoo management has promised upgrades. As they should; the fact that a weakness went undiscovered for nearly four decades doesn’t mean it should be left in place.

But the petition isn’t labeled “Protection for Zoo Visitors”, or “End Child Endangerment”, but “Justice for Harambe”. The tags aren’t “Child Welfare” or “Child Neglect”, but rather “Animals”, “Animal Cruelty” (?), and “Harambe”. Whatever else the child means to Sheila Hurt, the author of the petition, it’s hard to escape the implication that the child is not uppermost in her mind, except as a stick with which to beat the parents: “If you can’t take proper care of your toys, I’ll just have to give them to someone else.”

Hurt’s petition isn’t the only sign of such imbalance. Another petition on demands a law creating legal consequences when an animal must be killed “due to the negligence of visitors”. A scandal-mongering site, RadarOnline, claims that the boy’s father has an extensive criminal past. (Shaun King of the New York Daily News points out that the father wasn’t even present at the zoo, and calls the Daily Mail source piece “despicable”, a judgment with which I heartily concur.) They also print tweets screaming about “the stupid and [sic] their irresponsible parenting,” the “LAZY people who do not WATCH THEIR CHILDREN.”

Many people have questioned the necessity of killing Harambe. The strongest tranquilizer the zoo had would not have taken effect for around ten minutes. The keepers couldn’t risk Harambe’s reaction to the tranquilizer; his “protection” had already caused the tyke severe injuries. However, on the Cincinnati Zoo’s Facebook page, according to the Independent, one commenter reacted to the announcement’s statement that the zoo was “in mourning” over Harambe’s death by shrieking, “In mourning? You all killed him for protecting a child whose parents couldn’t contain their own children!!” The zoo held a press conference in which the director, Thayne Maynard, “forcefully rejected the second-guessing of what he called ‘Monday morning quarterbacks’ over the decision to kill the gorilla.”

“We Are All Afraid”

In all this rage and turmoil there’s more than a hint that the boy’s well-being is of less moment than the death of Harambe. Grant that the gorilla didn’t understand or intend the harm he was doing to the child, and that his death was regrettable. Such concessions still don’t justify the attempts to portray his actions as less than dangerous, or to argue that the fear of further harm to the child was unwarranted. Nor do the concessions serve to explain activists’ eagerness to crucify the parents, an eagerness that exculpates by silence the zoo for the embarrassing vulnerability of their visitor protection. Or the bizarre, overwrought description of Harambe’s death as “animal cruelty”, surely an unjust description of the keepers’ acts and intents.

Remember, this is not about the boy’s best interests or about visitor safety, but rather about “justice for Harambe”. In the name of “justice for Harambe”, the same “Monday morning quarterbacks”, acting on incomplete and arguably distorted information, second-guess the behavior of the mother, treating speculation as fact, demanding punishment where culpability has yet to be established, and demanding law to criminalize ex post facto a freak occurrence.

A comment I saw about this subject on Facebook really struck me: a woman confessed, “I’m a ‘helicopter parent’ because my neighbors would accuse me of child endangerment if I let my kids do the things I did growing up.” Says Simcha Fisher:

Understandably, we are all afraid — especially we parents. We love our kids so much, and the world is so fraught with peril. We want to believe that a horror like this could never happen to us. When we turn on the news, and we picture it happening to our own little, sweet ones, we always imagine what we would have done instead — conveniently forgetting that each of us, including sinless Mary and perfect Jesus, will eventually fall into improbable, dangerous situations with kids.

We would have held on tighter, we tell ourselves. We would have trained the kid better. We would have reacted sooner. We never would have been in what we would have recognized as an obviously dangerous situation in the first place, because we’re not like that. We’re good parents, and good parents have safe kids. So my kid will be safe as soon as I figure out how this mom was at fault.

We do parents an injustice and set an unreasonably high expectation when we holler “recklessness”, “negligence”, and “child endangerment” every time a child comes to grief by evading his parents’ supervision. Sometimes, nobody is to blame. Parents deserve, if not a “safe harbor”, then at least a wider, more tolerant margin of error in raising their children. Parents shouldn’t have to suffer the constant nitpicking and second-guessing of (more or less) well-intentioned nosy parkers — to worry about accusations of abuse if their daughter falls off her bike and breaks her arm, or neglect if their son wanders off to explore the neighborhood and gets hit by a car. At the very least, negligence should be proven beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law before the kids can be taken away.

“Someone’s Gotta Be Punished”

That the zookeepers were right to shoot Harambe shouldn’t even be a question, let alone a subject for debate. However, many animal activists, especially those who are most adamant about punishing the parents of the boy, seem to have less feeling for other humans than they do for animals. There are some who have signed the petition who would willingly abort their own unborn children but who wouldn’t eat an unfertilized chicken ovum. That rank amateurs should criticize the experts for their actions is in my opinion a clear signal of disordered priorities.

It’s not that I object to concern for animals. Indeed not; care for animals is part of caring for the environment, which is one of the obligations of stewardship over the earth as taught in Catholic social doctrine. However, the Church’s social doctrine rejects an environmentalism which denies the ontological and axiological differences between humans and other living creatures (cf. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 463 § 2). The very act of assuming responsibility for the environment — indeed, the mere contemplation of equality among creatures — renders such a pseudo-egalitarianism absurd and incoherent. Natural kinship affinity demands that, just as I set my family before others, I also set my species before others. I might reconsider my position the day I see a protest gathering of sharks demanding the ethical treatment of humans — but not a single day before.

What the activists seek isn’t “justice” for Harambe, because that would assume that his death was not simply regrettable but wrongful. It was not; even many of those who initially criticized the shoot have conceded its necessity and absolved the zoo. What the activists seek is revenge: they seek to punish the mother because someone’s gotta be punished for Harambe’s death. There’s no justice without truth or mercy; and I can’t discern among the mother’s critics the slightest bit of concern for either.