'MONSTER" is a powerful word. Use it to describe someone, and you'd better be prepared for a strong reaction.
Take Samantha Powers. Barack Obama's senior foreign-policy adviser called Hillary Clinton a "monster."
But sometimes "monster" is the only word that fits. Nothing else adequately describes depravity.
The 16-year-old who beat Starbucks manager Sean Patrick Conroy to death last week on the 13th Street subway concourse is, to my mind, a monster. So are the as-yet-unidentified members of his posse.
They may have parents who love them. They may have teachers who tried to reach them. They may have other friends who joked - or did less innocent things - with them.
But if they did what police said they did, pounding their fists mercilessly into a man who was crouched and gasping for air, they abandoned their humanity at the turnstile.
We'll pay some lip service to the "presumption of innocence," just as we do every time someone is caught breaking the social contract. The formalities must be observed, especially when dealing with juveniles. So let's call them "alleged monsters," for the sake of propriety.
But let's assume the juveniles are guilty of murder. Let's throw in "hate crime," too, since the victim was white. (Never ignore the race angle, right?)
So what's the next step? Do we extend to the attackers the same type of mercy they showed their victim? Do we lay them out on the ground and beat the life out of them like they did to Sean Patrick Conroy?
NO, WE'D TRIP OVER the Eighth Amendment.
How about placing the blame at the feet of the SEPTA police who don't respond quickly enough or a broken education system or the proliferation of violence on TV or the gun culture? How about poverty, the old "I'm depraved because I'm deprived" defense?
I have a better idea. Let's focus on what was lost here.
I wasn't a friend of Sean Conroy's, but we'd met during my extensive travels through the area's Starbucks stores. He had a gentle smile, a wry sense of humor and an engaging manner. He served up coffee and commentary with gracious good cheer. He always remembered my drink and commiserated over the hot weather. He liked the autumn.
He was one of the many people who pass through your life daily, most of whom leave no distinguishing trace of themselves. He was different because of his kind ways. When I saw his picture on the evening news, I felt sick to my stomach. And I barely knew him.
Then I thought of his parents and the fiancee he proposed to on Easter, people who loved him dearly. Theirs is surely an unfathomable sorrow. Their lives will be irreparably shattered.
And I thought of the way he died, gasping for air on station platform. My mother has asthma, and I've seen the fear in her eyes when she couldn't catch her breath or find her inhaler quickly enough.
The killers may not have known that by striking Sean they would have triggered the asthma attack. Legally, that may have some relevance. Morally, it has none. They preyed on their victim for a cheap afternoon thrill.
That's when it struck me that the people who were capable of engaging in the blood sport that ended Sean's life were not people at all. They're younger versions of Police Officer Cassidy's assassin. Baby Mumias. Wolves. Monsters.
In a grim coincidence, the day after Sean Conroy died, Mumia Abu-Jamal was given another chance at life. The sword of Damocles that's been twisting over his head for more than 25 years was yanked back a few inches.
So if we can't even execute the assassin of a police officer (reaffirmed by courts on all levels), who really believes the murderers of a sweet and gentle civilian will get the punishment they truly deserve? (Especially since the Supreme Court banned the execution of juveniles.)
No, this is what will happen. The psychologists will talk about how Sean Patrick Conroy's killers are actually good kids gone wrong because of circumstances. Poverty, racism, domestic violence, all the usual suspects will be trotted out to explain why these otherwise upstanding young men committed what Mayor Nutter called "a stupid act."
He needs a better dictionary. This wasn't stupidity. This was evil.
But we'll all be asked to nod our heads in unison anyway and agree that evil is bound to happen when poverty and racism and domestic violence are a part of a "child's" life.
Only these aren't "children." These are creatures that killed for the fun of it, for the joy of watching a human being writhe in pain.
The word "monster" was made for them. *
Christine Flowers is a lawyer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.