The price of vigilante justice

October 17, 1994

When Michael Dukakis was asked in a nationally televised debate during his run for the presidency in 1988 whether he would favor capital punishment if his wife had been raped and murdered, everyone but the candidate knew the proper response:

"I'd want to tear the suspect apart limb by limb, but that's not what a civilized society does."

This same line of thinking should have been used in the streets of East Baltimore last week. But it wasn't and now 13-year-old Vernon Holmes is dead.

dTC It doesn't matter if the boy was a lost soul, was a punk, a smart mouth, a fighter, if he threw rocks at someone's car. You can't take out a gun and shoot the child.

Neighbors in the East Barclay-Midway area where the shooting of Vernon Holmes occurred defend the 61-year-old suspect, Nathaniel Hurt, as a man who worked for the betterment of his city. He swept his walks. He was a block captain. He hired neighborhood kids at his sno-ball stand, even the Holmes youth himself at one point.

But this isn't about judging the character of the man versus the boy. It's about judging the act -- the firing of a handgun, as police said, off a second-floor fire escape into a group of teens vandalizing a car. And Vernon Holmes is dead as a result.

Hair-trigger tendencies in a handgun-saturated society are sad enough when they lead to adult deaths. But it is far more tragic when children's lives are cut short.

Are 13-year-olds incorrigible? If we shoot all the teen-agers who commit vandalism, much less more serious crimes, how many will be left? If we lament the fact that armed children can't curb their immature psyches in the schoolyard, how can we condone the fatal combustion of an adult temper? If we decry the mowing down of children in the indiscriminate cross-fire of drug dealers, isn't it even more troubling when a responsible member of the community contributes to Baltimore's death toll?

About 40 young people under age 18 were among the record 353 homicide victims in the city last year. That's roughly the same rate of children among homicide victims -- about 10 percent -- that the FBI reports nationally.

It is a great waste of life that diminishes us as a people. And make no mistake: a society that can justify it in response to disrespect or destruction of property is going to churn out more, not fewer, misguided children.

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