How outrage over Cecil the lion killing misses the point

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Outrage over Cecil trophy kill went viral, spawned outrage backlash from those who say moral compass is skewed
  • What about human suffering in Zimbabwe, Syria, among refugees?

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for the Miami Herald and World Politics Review and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Of all the stories you heard in the news in the past few days, which one moved you the most? Which outraged you, brought you to tears, led you to action? Which did you talk about with your friends, post on Facebook, discuss on Twitter? If the answer is the killing of Cecil the lion, you are in lots of company.

Frida Ghitis
By now, it seems, most people agree that the killing, apparently for fun, of the majestic lion by a Minnesota dentist visiting Zimbabwe was a perplexing act of pointless cruelty and cowardice. It spawned millions of posts on Facebook and Twitter -- a kind of outrage tsunami.
Cecil, who was apparently well-known and loved in the natural park where he lived in Zimbabwe, died in a most unnatural way, lured from his home and slaughtered. (The dentist, now perhaps fearing for his life, has apparently gone into hiding.)
    The intensity of the backlash over the trophy killing has triggered a counter-backlash. Why, some are now asking, do people care so much about the death of a lion when so many human beings are suffering and dying? The surge of sorrow for a dead lion, they say, when compared to the relative quiet about other wrongs, reveals a moral flaw in our humanity, a defect in our moral compass.
    This view is bringing together an unlikely collection of suddenly like-minded critics. From the left and the right, there is a growing sense that the outpouring of grief for Cecil is unseemly.
    Some note that if we're suddenly looking at Zimbabwe, now would be a fine time to gaze beyond the fate of a lion. The country is a showcase of misrule by a president who has held power for 28 years, destroying the country's economic base and spurring the kind of hopelessness, hunger and poverty that, among other things, leads to poaching wild animals.
    Much of the population is destitute. Zimbabwe's wildlife is devastated. And understandably, some who struggle to live there are bemused at the circumstances of this new attention.
    Outrage, too, is playing out over social media.
    A Facebook page titled "Shame Lion Killer Dr Walter Palmer," at last count with 13,000 members, carried some of the angry criticism. One writer posted a question: "What's more appalling, the death of ONE lion...or the 30,000 children that die from hunger daily?" The obvious answer could be discerned from the accompanying photos of emaciated children and the hashtag #endworldhunger.
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    Twitter, too, was filled with bitter recrimination against the lion lovers.
    "Since the tragic slaying of Cecil the Lion, 1,286 people have been killed in Syria, mostly by the regime's war planes," read one posting. Another sardonic tweet: "I wish Bashar al Assad would kill a lion. Maybe then we would care enough to do something about Syria." Another lamented, "More than 220,000 #Syria-ns died & millions displaced but the world would rather mourn a lion."
    It wasn't just hungry children and Syrian war victims on the minds of those objecting to the depth of sorrow for Cecil. The writer Heather Wilhelm expounded on our "broken outrage meter," noting how the digital age has brought along "the thrill of discovering a new World's Most Despicable Person," a game that leads the mobs to judge and shame.
    Clearly, paying tens of thousands of dollars to shoot an animal is a mystifying, despicable form of entertainment. But it happens every day with no noticeable global outcry.
    But the fact that the lion had a name, Cecil, humanized him. Thousands of heartbroken Cecil fans had never heard of him. And, in this era of lightning-fast communications, the outrage (deserved at any pointless, unjustified killing) spread quickly.
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    The late night comic Jimmy Kimmel choked back tears in a four-minute monologue about the lion and his killer ("I'm not against hunting," he explained, saying it's OK to kill animals when it's for food, to control population, or "part of your culture.") In this case, he had no mercy for the evil dentist, -- who has apparently gone into hiding. Said Kimmel: "Is it that difficult for you to get an erection that you need to kill things?" he asked, eliciting cheers from the crowd.
    Is it wrong to cry over a lion?
    No, any sign of compassion, of caring, is a welcome reminder that we have not lost our humanity. And the right vs. wrong calculation is easy to understand in this case. But compare it to the human abhorrence for injustice that might better motivate us to fight hunger or war or disease.
    Ending world hunger is not impossible, but it's not simple or easy. And yet, the fact that it is difficult does not excuse us from the urgency of trying.
    No, there is nothing morally flawed in being outraged about the death of a gorgeous lion. Go ahead, pat yourself on the back over that. Sign a petition, even.
    But there is something deeply wrong in not caring, not doing more to stop the attacks that continue to kill thousands in Syria; or about the millions of suffering refugees created by war and terror--- the highest numbers since World War II -- or about the 9 million people (3 million of them children!) who die of hunger-related causes every year.
    Of everything that happened in the world in the past few days, what do you think deserves the most urgent attention?