What the Killing of Harambe the Gorilla Reveals About Our Culture of Fear

What the Killing of Harambe the Gorilla Reveals About Our Culture of Fear

Picture credit: Viral Hog

Joshua Tartakovsky, 6 June 2006

It was a peaceful day in the Cincinnati zoo. A child accidentally fell into the yard hosting a gorilla.  Videos showed later on TV depicted the harrowing scene of the massive gorilla dragging the helpless boy through the water in a threatening gesture.  The boy looked like a pawn in the hands of an immense gorilla. With his back turned against the wall, the gorilla watched the freaked-out crowd.

A visibly nervous director of the zoo later explained to the TV networks that the gorilla was shot shortly later by a decision of the management.  He said that putting the gorilla to sleep via a shot would have taken too long, and that the zoo had to take a tough decision to save the boy. “The child wasn’t under attack but all kind of things could have happened in a situation like that. He certainly was at risk,” the director of the zoo, Thane Maynard, explained.


A video that surfaced later revealed a more complex picture. In the video, the gorilla was seen actually protecting, not attacking the boy. The gorilla, or Harambe as he is known, first shielded the child in the corner with his body. But the masses of people watching the scene were in panic. They were yelling and shouting in fear. Harambe became even more afraid.  The gorilla pulled the boy gently (or as gently as a gorilla can manage) to another side of the yard. The gorilla’s behind was turned against the wall as he faced the crowds, watching them.  He did not attack the boy. The sight of the crowds in panic may have well been perceived by Harambe as a sign that the people were posing a danger to the child. That is probably why he dragged him to another corner through the muddy water in the first place.

A witness reported that before Harambe was shot, the boy was sitting by his side peacefully. She did not believe that the gorilla posed a danger at all. Dr. Emily Bethel of the Primate Behaviour at Liverpool John Moores University said it was clear from Harambe’s body language that he was protecting the boy.


The police said it will launch an investigation into the killing of Harambe. A Facebook group named Justice for Harambe already gained 130,000 followers.  The hashtag #JusticeforHarambe is making waves.


Reflecting on the scene hours later, it is not too farfetched to assume that Harambe was afraid. From the videos, it is as transparent as a clear day in the Nevada desert that Harambe sought to protect the boy. The spectators however, rather than remaining calm and seeking a rational solution, probably started screaming ‘Oh my God’ as if that would help. People of greatness are measured in times of emergency and my estimate is that the people’s panic exacerbated the situation. Unlike the spectators whose ‘job’ is to panic and make for mind-numbing Time magazine headlines, the zoo-keepers have to act in support of the boy first of all, but also of Harambe.

Instead of rescuing the boy or putting Harambe to sleep, the zoo management chose to kill the gorilla right away. Why the rush to shoot if the boy was not in danger? Well, the zoo management probably feared for the life of the boy and got engulfed in panic. Although the gorilla did not pose a danger, the obsessive-compulsive need for total security, for exterminating every perceivable threat due to a momentary emotion – however groundless it may be – the psychological pressure to have full control over a situation, resulted in the pointless killing of an endangered gorilla.


One could make the entirely opposite argument, however. That the compassion and outpouring of tears over the killing of a gorilla while not realizing his killing was needed to protect a child is mindless emotionalism and exposes the new low depths humans have fallen into as we neglect solid thinking abilities. That seems to be a fair claim.


But for this claim to be true, the argument needs to be rightly made that the killing of Harambe was necessary since he posed a threat. And that argument cannot be made. What can be said is that Harambe caused people, due to their own projections, to panic in fear. But that is not the same as to argue, as the zoo director did, that killing Harambe was the rational choice. The management of the zoo should have been knowledgeable enough about animals to realize that it was clear from the gorilla’s body language that he posed no threat. If it did not know enough about gorillas, it should have not bothered to adopt one.


So, a rare gorilla was killed due to people’s fear. What does that say about our world and it is an unusual case?


Let’s just look at our world for a moment.  Black people get killed in US streets all the time because of suspicious movements.  Cops often claim that the suspect reached for his pocket or moved away, but does that justify shooting the person? January 2015, Oakland, California.  Police come to a shop after a report on a shoplifting. Yuvette Henderson, an African-American mother of two, facing five or six law enforcement officials, and standing in the street, waves her hand. Witnesses said she had no gun and tried to signal a bus to stop.  She was gunned down by the police.

In 2015, 1,134 black people were shot by the police at the highest rate ever according to The Guardian.  In an article for CounterPunch, Steve Martinot writes that the new trend “seems to be to shoot the person when they actually move away. Hundreds of people, mostly black and brown, have been shot in the back by police for moving away from an arbitrary approach by police… .”
The tendency to kill perceived threats is enacted against whites too. LaVoy Finicum, an Oregon protester, “reached for his waistband” with his right arm, and that resulted in the police shooting him in cold-blood. However, LaVoy’s family insists he was unarmed. Furthermore, LaVoy was left handed and would have his gun positioned in his right side. But he made a movement, and therefore he was shot.


What we are seeing more and more is the psychological need to exterminate any conceivable threat, not any real threat. This irrationalism, and the need of the fearful mind to have absolute and total control, cannot but be destructive and deadly.


What’s even more disturbing is that this fearful and obsessive line of thinking applies globally too. An opinion commonly expressed in neo-con think-tanks and NATO circles is that the United States must go to war with Russia because the latter possess nuclear weapons (although the US was the one to withdraw from the ABM treaty). On November 2015, US Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley said that (my emphasis in bold):


 In terms of capability, Russia is the only country on earth that has the capability to destroy the United States of America. It’s an existential threat by definition because of their nuclear capabilities. Other countries have nuclear weapons, but none as many as Russia and none have the capability to literally destroy the United States.


Russia is the biggest threat for the United States. Why? Because it is the only country in the world that has the nuclear capacity to destroy the US.  Please note the difference. The very existence of a perceived threat, namely Russia’s nuclear capacities, mean that Russia is actually a threat and the US must go to war with Russia, just as the director of the Cincinnati zoo said that “all kind of things can happen” with the gorilla standing by the boy, although the gorilla didn’t actually attack the boy. Never mind the fact that the US is the one surrounding Russia with missiles and not vice versa.

The same fearful, irrational, line of thinking that runs through the killing of Harambe, also runs through the killing of Black Americans who move their arms, and the shooting of American patriots.

Confusing between the imaginary and the real, between fears and reality, is not just nonsensical. It is also obsessive-compulsive. It can never end. Any perceived threat to the fearful man, to the man who has not evolved beyond primitive fear and cannot transcend the flight-or-fight response, will end in extermination. The problem is that the objects in question are often not a threat and that the next person who can be shot is you or me. We may have a nuclear annihilation due to a fear that Russia or China will attack the US, although the US is the one surrounding these two countries with NATO missiles or warships and not the other way around. Gorillas can be shot even as they protect a boy. An African American woman can be shot since she waves her arms.


The desire for full control over a situation is also an attempt at hubris since it is impossible.


If destruction and senseless killing are not to continue, people need to get their emotions into hand, move beyond the primitive survival mode humans they have been accustomed to for eons, and use their brains, now more than ever.  The fight-or-flight response is simply not very helpful nor does it result in lasting happiness to the executor.


We can no longer live as fearful atoms, prisoners of the fearful thoughts in our minds. We must move beyond our fears and develop a calmer approach by seeing others as they are, not as who we think they are.  Our very survival is at stake otherwise.