When Is A Witch Hunt Okay?


When we learned last week about Jennifer Petkov, who became instantly notorious for mocking a dying 7-year-old, we collectively recoiled. And some people did more than that. In the age of the Internet, when does the bully become victim?

Petkov, who’s since been arrested for an unrelated assault charge, is as odious a public enemy as the imagination can conjure: a remorseless bully preying on a sick child and her family. And so, when we heard 4Chan’s notorious team of ‘net vigilantes was on the case, it was hard for even the most fair-minded not to think that a little frontier justice wasn’t due, especially given that Petkov perpetrated her own acts via the Internet. When we learned that her husband had been suspended from his job, things got dicier. And when it came out that her son was dealing with the consequences of her actions, things became complicated indeed. When does it cease to be justice? When does the enormity of the backlash make the bully the underdog?

Writing in Newsweek about the Phoebe Prince case, Jessica Bennett writes,

One reason these cases can spin off into a kind of mob vigilantism, say experts, is avoidance: we hate the bully because it’s easier than hating the action of the bullying. “It allows us,” says Sameer Hinduja, the codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center, “to convince ourselves that bullies are categorically different from us.” But are they? The teens charged with bullying Prince are accused of taunting her with many of the same names now being hurled back at them by the public (“slut,” “whore”)-yet they face criminal charges that could lock them away for 10 years, while their tormenters roam free. And while it’s easy to empathize with a parent who wants to stop his child’s bully, how far is too far? In Wisconsin, a man was recently sentenced to eight months in prison for head-butting his 13-year-old son’s bullies, and punching out a gym teacher. In Florida, the dad who climbed onto his daughter’s school bus, threatening to kill the boys who’d bullied her, has been hailed as a “hero” and “good father.” How far is too far in the name of protecting children?

Of course, the Prince case is more complex in that at the end of the day much of this comes down to adults attacking teens, and in some cases very young teens. The dynamics of the Petkov case are less fraught, perhaps — and in some sense a good barometer. Isn’t someone sometimes just…bad? We don’t need to be ealing with self-loathing to hate a person who preys on a sick child, and maybe there are worse things than realizing that we draw a collective line at a pretty heinous point. It’s intersting, because through this story, we’ve seen the capabilities of the Internet for good and ill. It was on Facebook that Jennifer Petkov first disseminated doctored images of Kathleen and her late mother superimposed over skulls and crossbones. On the other hand, once the story became public a local business owner used the Reddit community to publicize the toy-store spree that inspired an outpouring of generosity and gave Kathleen an unforgettable day of play and happiness. I’ve seen, on these pages, people say that Petkov’s actions damaged their faith in humanity — and others that the outpouring of support restored it. One could argue that it was meet and right that the harassment story went viral and Petkov was vilified. But what do we want, ultimately? An apology? We have it. A promise to leave the girl and her family alone? We have that, too. She’s not going to become a different person, but do we want that — or some kind of punishment?

After the Lori Drew incident hit the news, the story was ripped from the headlines for a Law and Order: SVU episode in which Debi Mazar guest-starred as a heartless harridan harassing a young girl to the point of suicide. Naturally, Benson and Stabler were disgusted, but knew they had an obligation to legally protect the woman — because law and order must be maintained. Sometimes it seems like these two fictional cops become our guide for how to deal with complicated situations and exorcise them in 40 minutes. And if we see a plotline in which a cruel woman taunts a dying child, we’ll be told that she was bad — but that it wasn’t an excuse for vigilante justice. Because chances are, it’ll end up being a Red Herring in a more complicated and darker case.

Are We A Nation Of Bullies? [Newsweek]

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