WASHINGTON -- Alexis Williams died last Sunday afternoon. He was sitting with some friends under an oak tree at a housing project in New Orleans when three men walked up and opened fire. As people scattered, one of the gunmen reportedly remained behind to shoot the dying man in the back.
None of which, however awful it sounds, is the most shocking element of the man's death. No, that would be what happened next, as recounted by the New Orleans Times-Picayune: A crowd of more than 200 people assembled around the bullet-punctured corpse, and many of them celebrated. The grown-ups drank beer and ate snacks "as if they were at a picnic," a reporter noted. Children munched candy apples. Babies were brought to see. Mr. Williams' 16-year-old daughter stood there weeping.
He was, it must be said, a bad man. At least, that seems to be the consensus from police and the community. An alleged gang leader and accused murderer against whom charges were once reportedly dropped because witnesses feared to testify.
So evidently, few of his neighbors will grieve Mr. Williams' passing, and that's understandable. But to gather around a bleeding corpse in celebration? To bring babies and children by so that they, too, might enjoy this death? There is something disturbing in that. Something that makes you shake your head at how easily -- indeed, how eagerly -- we step outside our own humanity.
It's reminiscent of the lynch mob photos that were sold as souvenirs in the first half of the past century. You'd see some black man hanging by his neck from a tree or lying charred atop a pile of blackened wood, while white men, women and children gathered around, smiling and pointing, like hunters with a prize stag.
You look at those ghastly photographs now and you can't help but wonder what they could have been thinking. The same question attaches to the people in New Orleans who celebrated a body freshly killed.
I suspect you'd find a certain similarity in the responses offered by the lynch mob and the New Orleans crowd. Both would doubtless argue that there is a law above the law. That the rules and regulations written to govern society's behavior are fine in their place, but there are times when you got to do what you got to do. Times when the infraction is so grievous, the law so impotent or the cause so plainly righteous that no other option is available.
It's a seductive and dangerous argument. Seductive because it confers legitimacy upon our darkest desires and fears. Dangerous because it gives each woman or man the potential and right to become law unto herself or himself, judge, jury and executioner, all in one.
I won't insult your intelligence by pretending the law is infallible. All of us have seen too many miscreants set free -- and too many innocents condemned -- to ever believe such a thing.
But I will say that, had Alexis Williams' accusers summoned the intestinal fortitude to testify against him, there was a chance, at least a chance, that he would now be doing hard time. I will say that the law is the best hope we've got.
Not simply as a mechanism for punishing bad people. But also as a means of defending any claim we have to calling ourselves good ones. To calling ourselves civilized.
Which is something those people in New Orleans were conspicuously not. Instead, they placed themselves at the tail end of a long line of human failure, their sins different from those of the lynch mob only in degree.
Once you've stepped outside your humanity, is it possible to ever truly step back in?
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.