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When a mayor is afraid of condemning violence

The big news story here in Philadelphia today:

About a dozen neighborhood residents flew into a rage yesterday afternoon when they cornered Jose Carrasquillo, who police said they had linked through physical evidence to the heinous Monday-morning rape of Reynolds' daughter.

The justice-seeking mob rained fists, feet and wooden sticks upon Carrasquillo, 26, for several minutes until police intervened at Front and Clearfield streets.

When the dust cleared, Carrasquillo, whose last known address was Orkney Street near York, was in critical condition at a local hospital, and police officials were thanking the locals for helping them catch a man they had pursued feverishly but identified only as "a person of interest."

The reaction so far?

"These guys really stepped up."

-- John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, as overheard tonight on WPHT's "Dom Giordano Show."

OK, OK, it's hard to imagine what kind of uncharged-suspect-beatdown that McNesby would not endorse. But how does one explain this reaction from someone we once -- emphasis on the word "once" -- expected more from, Mayor Michael Nutter?

"I do not generally condone what someone might consider vigilantism out in our streets, but it's indicative of the anger and the compassion that many of our citizens have," Nutter said. He went on to call the episode a "demonstration" of the fact "that Philadelphians care passionaltiy about this city, about our quality of life and certainly about our children."

I felt I was inside Alice's Looking Glass, or some version of Bizarro World, as I listened to the radio on the way into the office tonight. That's because -- completely defying the stereotypes of conservative talk radio -- the host Giordano and the majority of a handful of callers that I heard had the common decency to use the C-word, as in "condemn," as in, sure the passion and anger out on the streets is understandable, but that it's also important that we condemn vigilante-style justice.

The kind of condemnation that Mayor Michael Nutter was too afraid to utter himself.

Look, everyone can and should agree that the rapist and attacker of an 11-year-old girl is the lowest scum in our community, who deserves the full force of justice, and that people's passion is understandable -- to not share that level of anger over the crime itself would be less than human.

But we have laws against vigilantism for a reason -- several reasons, actually. For one thing, Carrasquillo is still officially just the "person of interest" in the case, and there's always still the chance that he's not even the guy. What's more, there is the chance that the angry mob could have mistaken someone innocent for Carrasquillo and then assaulted the wrong guy, or worse. (Indeed, Giordano said there were reports that such a thing did happen yesterday -- if that's correct then I'll update the post.) There's a lot of reasons why we expect people in authority -- the alleged grown-ups -- to oppose citizens taking the law into their own hands.

Which is why I think Nutter's cowardly statement is much worse than whatever the mob did. Here's a guy who -- in my opinion -- is seeing his popularity and maybe even his re-election floating down the tubes because of his halting responses to a very real fiscal crisis, and so now he may think he's getting back into Philadelphia's good graces by playing to the mob, in the Roman tradition. That's pretty low, not to mention a poor calculation. This is a city that needs a leader -- someone who'll actually condemn this sort of thing in no uncertain terms, popular or not -- and not someone chasing after an emotional crowd, begging for its approval.