In 1953, the satirist Robert Sheckley wrote "The Seventh Victim," a short story about an alternate America where murder is legal. People sign up to kill a randomly assigned person. If they succeed, someone is randomly assigned to kill them. If they kill the person hunting them, they get to hunt again. It's a neat system of alternating offense and defense, and you have to be good at both to become a Ten. Being a Ten means you've hunted down and killed 10 people and killed another 10 who were trying to hunt down and kill you. Talk-show appearances and corporate sponsorships follow.
The story describes a world without war, because a quarter of the human race has signed up for this scheme. They're the same people who would have become hawkish politicians, defense industry CEOs, genocidal dictators, suicide bombers, strike-breaking governors and religious leaders ladling out purple Kool-Aid. Instead, they're out gathering heads—human heads—for their walls. Struggling liberal arts colleges are being supported by thriving new taxidermy departments. Because the people who need to kill are busy killing each other, countries are being run by conscious and empathic and honest people.
Alas, it's fiction, and science fiction at that. But given the news from Zimbabwe about poor old Cecil the Lion, I'm thinking that Sheckley's 60-year-old idea has substance. Who knows what atrocities the Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer would have committed if he hadn't taken down Cecil with his crossbow? Who knows what monsters trophy hunters anywhere would become if they were denied the psychic release of turning live flesh and blood into a wall mount? If Vladimir Putin had been photographed holding a crossbow in one hand and a dead snow leopard in the other, might a Malaysian airliner have landed safely in Kuala Lumpur? If Adam Lanza of Sandy Hook or James Holmes of Aurora had been enrolled in a hunting ethics course that emphasized you should only kill people who are trying to kill you, might they have become students of the hunt rather than of the kill?
However grotesque, these are neither fictional nor idle questions. As a child, I met the clients my father guided elk and deer and mountain goat hunting, and even then could recognize them as people who were spending lots of money for help in finding something they lacked. They returned with their trophies to lives without authenticity, without self-awareness and—judging from their frequent divorce-announcing Christmas cards—without love. In retrospect, the buckets of their bucket lists had holes in their bottoms, and trophy hunting was an attempt to experience something bigger than the holes.
You can condemn Walter Palmer's luring an old pet lion out of a wildlife sanctuary and killing him with a crossbow. You can say that nothing authentic can come out of that experience. But you cannot say that his life as a dentist wasn't authentically desperate. Staring into a 10,000-mouth abyss would make me want to kill something, I'm sure. Any peace of mind for Walter Palmer must have required that he do something terribly real with the money he'd traded his God-given life for.
As Walter Palmer must have figured out, killing something is an act authenticated by the death of whatever it is you kill. Judging from Internet postings, a lot of wildlife-lovers would like to do something authentic with Walter Palmer.
Here in Idaho we have an opportunity to implement a pilot project that would ease the pressure on Walter Palmer and whatever African species he might go after next. It will also invigorate Idaho's rural economy.
Butte County is already lobbying to have the Craters of the Moon National Monument transformed into a national park, and I propose that we go a step further and make it the nation's first Park of Death, where hunters and victims can play hide-and-seek. We can dress it up by calling it Luna de los Muertes National Park, which is a lot more poetic than Craters of the Moon anyway. It will also certify the area as a lethal landscape, where you can die from getting lost, falling into deep holes or heat stroke, among a bunch of other things. Put even a small percentage of the Visit Every National Park crowd in that environment and you'll have monthly body counts.
Better to put razor wire around the place and legalize human trophy hunting. Arm both predators and prey and set them loose on the inside. You'll have a Cabela's in Arco before you know it, and a fine-dining Pickle Palace annex, and maybe a LigerTown franchise. Drones will capture the action and broadcast it to the new, tourist-packed Atomic City Amphitheater. It will be a combination of going through the Serengeti, without the danger and discomfort of riding in an open Land Rover, and visiting the gladiatorial games in Rome, without the inconvenience of having to learn Latin.
Best of all, humans are not yet an endangered species, and letting them hunt each other in the Craters will not cause damage to the Earth's climate, nor cause any species to go extinct. It will undoubtedly garner the kind of smarmy apologists who say hunting is the salvation of wildlife, and for once they'll be right.