Watching the post-Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver on June 15, I confess to being outraged. I was concerned someone would be killed by an exploding gas tank or in a stupid, drunken melee. I was also upset that a bunch of thugs were literally setting fire to the billions of dollars we invested in the Olympics to enhance Vancouver and Canada's global reputation as great places to visit. I wanted people to be arrested, and was glad when the police starting to lob tear gas into the crowds. The guy who got the flash-bang grenade to his crotch? Priceless.
And when blogs and Facebook pages started to appear that very night looking to identify the rioters I told myself, "This is justice." All the rioters thought they had a freebie, that they were just another face in a faceless crowd that was too large to arrest or even contain. Some people took liberties while others took photos and video.
Then I found out that a Whistler kid was on the receiving end of this unprecedented internet justice - someone I've watched grow up over the years into a world-class mountain bike athlete and freeskier - and I started to think about what justice really means. The Internet mob was demanding that his sponsors drop him, while making radical assumptions about what kind of person he must be or what he must have been thinking at the time. They branded him a criminal for photos and videos that are mildly incriminating at best.
Truth is, only our justice system can label someone a criminal. Everyone is entitled to due process and legal defence, as well as the chance to plead guilty and show remorse. But for hundreds or maybe thousands of people commenting online he was already guilty and fit to be hung. A little perspective, folks:
He may or may not have played a small part in destroying a truck (a truck that would have gone over whether he put his fingers on it or not) but the mob was calling for the destruction of his entire life - everything he's worked toward and literally risked his life to accomplish. And for what? For a first-time offence that at the most would qualify for a charge of Mischief over $5,000 - a charge that would likely be dismissed in exchange for an apology, some community service and an agreement to pay a fine and make some restitution to the victim. That is, if he is charged at all.
In an ironic Catch-22, the same people that were calling for his sponsors to drop him immediately were also calling for him to pay for a new truck. But how (I asked on a company's Facebook page) is he supposed to make amends and pay for a new truck without his sponsors?
It dawned on me then that people don't really care about the truck - if they did, they'd insist that his sponsors garnish his wages or something until the truck was paid for. This was all about destroying someone to satisfy one's personal sense of justice, taking joy at the fall of a successful person. This is the reason tabloids exist and Lindsay Lohan's latest is front-page news.
In real justice there is an assumption of innocence until proven guilty. There are minimum and maximum penalties, including imprisonment and fines. There are mandates for probation and rehabilitation, based on the idea that a person really can pay their debt to society and can be redeemed - especially young people who really don't have the mental capacity to think things through. (It's the frontal lobe of the brain that dictates common sense, and it's not considered fully developed until people are 25 to 30 years old.)
In Internet justice, there is an assumption of guilt. There are no minimum or maximum penalties. It's fair game to go after jobs, friends and family members. They can restrict your freedom by hounding you at every turn. There is no set point where your debt to society can be considered paid. There's no redemption or rehabilitation allowed. It doesn't matter how young you are or what your potential may be.
I bet if you asked them, most of the people who took part in the riot are probably as appalled by their actions as we were. Most of them also couldn't tell you why they did it because there weren't any reasons. This was the mob mentality at work, a dark psychology both ugly and senseless, and it swept up thousands of otherwise law-abiding people.
Remember, we were initially told that the rioters were professional anarchists and agitators who do this kind of thing all the time. Then it turned out to be the nice, middle-class kids from next door who got more than a little carried away.
I'm not saying that all the rioters should get a pass or be forgiven, or even pitied - just that the Internet mob's only job should be to identify the people in the photos and send that information to the police. Anything else is just Internet bullying, even if it feels like Internet justice.