Real justice at risk of being sacrificed to mob rule
“The mob is the mother of tyrants.” – Diogenes
As true today as it was in the Greek philosopher’s time 2,500 years ago, the exponential increase in communication during the digital age has created an environment where instances of mob justice occur almost weekly. The growing prevalence threatens to undermine the formal judicial system.
The allure of the mob comes from its seeming ability to immediately satiate strong emotional reactions. As growing anger intensifies, the mob can render a quick outlet and quick outcome. It is the “perfect” solution for any member of the immediate gratification society created by fast and easy access to information over the Internet.
In contrast, the slow, deliberate pace of the formal court system frustrates and angers people looking for swift justice. For such people, “speedy trial” within six months often seems to be five months and 29 days too long. And that doesn’t account for the time between the accused’s crime and the entry of a not guilty plea.
The greatest danger arises when the outraged masses binging inside self-aggrandizing echo chambers spill out into the streets. Like all drug addicts know, when incrementally shrill and vitriolic Facebook posts no longer deliver the same delirium, some people seek out the next high through more dangerous action.
When Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed Cecil the lion, began receiving death threats at his home and office, it represented the ugly and inevitable conclusion to a viral mob movement begun only days before. He had been judged and found wanting on social media within hours of the first report on the lion’s death. With no time and no regard for all facts and sides of the story — especially Palmer’s — to be gathered and analyzed, vengeful comments began making their way across the Internet in a grotesque game of one-upmanship. The more graphic and acerbic, the better.
I don’t know enough about Walter Palmer, Cecil the Lion, or the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe to make an informed opinion, much less render judgement. But I worry about those who felt competent to do so quickly.More terrifying, this week’s events in Ferguson, Missouri blur the lines between powerful, necessary protest against systematic injustice and the chaotic swirl of a mob. A year removed from violence that crippled a city and called official findings into question before they could even be issued, the community again finds itself in a state of emergency. Another young man has been critically wounded after exchanging gunfire with authorities during a protest. Reactionary mobs, including the openly armed “Oathkeepers” have flooded into Ferguson. City officials teeter on the edge of full-fledged riots once again.
Sadly, the greatest victim in Ferguson may be the reforms peaceful activists originally sought. News cameras and blog posts will sit and wait for the next violent flashpoint, all but ignoring pleas to reform inequality and injustice in the very systems an unbridled mob acts to subvert.
In the end, real justice may be sacrificed to mob justice. And that would be a tale worthy of a Greek tragedy.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and legal scholar at the Denver law firm of Hackstaff & Snow LLC.