Pondering Harambe

Original Article

The killing of Harambe the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo last month was an unfortunate necessity, a lethal act required to save the life of an imminently endangered child. But listening to the public outpouring of grief and outrage—stoked by the media—one would think that the shooting of the animal was a heinous crime.

We saw the same kind of outrage when an American killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe last year. Unlike Harambe’s, Cecil’s death was anything but a necessity—he was lured out of a sanctuary to be shot by a trophy hunter. But the howling after the hunter stupidly posted on Facebook his photo taken with the dead lion caused some to worry that people care more about slain animals than they do slain people.

Adding fuel to that cultural concern, many commenters noted that while Americans mourned Harambe, scores of people were shot and some killed—including children—in the war zone that has become Chicago. Where was the grief over those deaths? Others noticed that American media poured far more effort and emotion into reporting on the dead gorilla than they did on ISIS’s beheading of Christians in Libya last year—six times more coverage on major television networks, NewsBusters found. Pro-lifers, meanwhile, contrasted the outrage over Harambe with the ho-hum reaction of much of society to the million-plus abortions in the country each year.

What gives? Do most people really believe the deaths of a gorilla and lion matter more than the deaths of human beings?

I don’t believe it. It is true that the terrible killings in Chicago have not emotionally resonated nationally in the same way as the animal deaths. But it may have something to do with Stalin’s purported maxim that the death of an individual is a tragedy, while the death of millions is a statistic. The media also haven’t focused on the Chicago deaths with the same intensity of coverage as they did the drama of the dead gorilla (although the New York Times had a cover story on the Chicago victims).

Mass murders such as 9/11—and most recently the Orlando atrocity—properly stoke a far greater outpouring of grief and anger than do the killings of any number of animals, no matter how gratuitous or inhumane their deaths might be. Individual homicides also sometimes cause viral outrage. There was widespread anger over the shooting death of Kate Steinle in San Francisco, for example. That may be because she was killed by an illegal alien—he claims it was an accident—at liberty, despite being a repeatedly deported felon, because of San Francisco’s misbegotten sanctuary city policy. The media individualized her death—the photo showing a beautiful woman in her prime was ubiquitous—in a way they haven’t the Chicago killings.

Emotions also run high when a dead individual was—or is perceived to have been—a victim of discriminatory injustice. When Michael Brown, a young African-American man, was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the fury sparked by the narrative (now known to be false) that he was surrendering with his hands up when shot led to riots—and the exponential growth of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Still, what explains the intensity of emotionalism over dead animals? Part of it, I think, is that we live in a time in which people “feel” more than they “think.” There is also the nature of the particular animals killed, which gets us back to the idea that the aesthetics involved in a killing can influence our emotional reaction to it. Harambe and Cecil were both magnificent creatures. Had either been, say, a warthog, I doubt we would have witnessed the same passionate outpouring. The emotional power of projected innocence may also explain the potent force that can be unleashed in the cases of animal deaths. Harambe was said to be protecting the child when shot.

Besides, Americans love animals. We coddle and coo over our cats and dogs as if they were human children. We place “Save the Whales” bumper stickers on our cars. We flock to national parks to catch fleeting glimpses of bear, elk, and antelope, remnants of the wild America that once was and yet still is. We fictionalize and anthropomorphize the animal world with movies like Bambi and Babe. We want our cheese to come from “happy cows.” For many of us, that sense of wonder about animals never leaves us, sparking anger and sadness when one is killed needlessly or wantonly.

This doesn’t mean that those who feel an animal’s death so deeply care less about humans who are killed. Or put another way, people don’t seem relatively indifferent to the fate of Christian martyrs and murdered Chicagoans because they care about the gorilla more. Rather, it is a defense mechanism. (Abortion is another story.) If we really let ourselves grieve for all the horrible and unjust human deaths that take place in the world every day, we would never get out of bed.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.