Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

Getting Beyond Our Obsession With Villains

On July 1, American sport hunter Walter Palmer flew into Harare Airport in Zimbabwe to meet veteran safari guide Theo Bronkhorst. Palmer had paid Bronkhorst at least $50,000 for one task—help him hunt and kill a prize lion. The next day, using an elephant carcass as bait, they lured a lion out of the Hwange National Park, and Palmer got near enough to shoot him with an arrow. The lion fled, the hunters tracked him the next day, and Palmer killed him with a second arrow.

That, of course, turned out to be Cecil the Lion, famous to visitors for his distinctive black-fringed mane.

When the word spread of what Palmer had done, people camped outside his Minnesota dentists office. Death threats poured in. The national organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released a statement calling for Palmer to be executed.

Americans tend to personalize our problems. When a hunter illegally guns down a lion, a mob wants to hunt him down and exact vengeance. When Lance Armstrong is finally caught for encouraging teammates to use performance-boosting drugs, he’s shunned and called a narcissist, a sociopath, a monster. When Osama bin Laden brings down the World Trade Center, his photo goes on t-shirts across the country in which people fantasize about revenge killing.

All three committed horrible deeds. But they also are stand-ins for bigger problems.

Rather than issue death threats against Palmer, those who are outraged could channel their efforts toward providing more aid to countries that agree to ban sport hunting.

Those who want Armstrong to be exiled could put their time into pressuring cycling to do more intrusive, rigorous, and unannounced doping tests, even if that means bringing down the sport’s big names.

And the American leaders who took us into two wars in the quest to exact vengeance on bin Laden would have done far more with less money by addressing the roots of terrorism: funneling money toward efforts to address the Middle East’s high poverty and unemployment, ending foreign occupations in places where troops weren’t needed, and bringing the hammer down on the autocratic governments in the region, many of which are also America’s allies.

Beyond that, we also need to get beyond the simplistic approach we’ve taken to public shaming. Those who have done monstrous acts need to own up to what they’ve done.

But there are two kinds of shaming, according to criminologist John Braithwaite. Disintegrative shaming is disrespectful and unforgiving and isolates the individual from the group. Reintegrative shaming takes place when disapproval, or shame, is partnered with respect for the individual, forgiveness, and acceptance back into the group—in other words, the individual accepts responsibility and is held accountable but is challenged and given support to live offense-free from there forward.

The Humane Society of the U.S.’ partnership with Michael Vick is a useful model. Vick, a star NFL quarterback, was convicted of running a dogfighting ring that did monstrous things, including shooting, hanging, and electrocuting dogs that didn’t perform well. But instead of turning him into a pariah, the Humane Society, after Vick served his time in prison and admitted his wrongdoing and regret, got him involved in educating the public about dog-fighting, and he’s been an effective spokesperson on the issue.

All of that shows that if we want to get to a future free of vicims of sexual assault and abuse, creating pariahs and putting their names and addresses online will accomplish little but create new victims, often their own family members. The answer is systemic change—more money for sexual abuse education, prevention, investigation, and treatment. That’s how we’ll really get to a future with neither pariahs nor victims.

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