There is something vicious, sick and mean-spirited about much of the public's reaction to Tuesday's killing of a burglar by a Johns Hopkins University undergraduate with a samurai sword. The gleeful response is completely oblivious to the tragedy that now has engulfed two lives.

Two lives? Yes, because one of the victims, however culpable, is now dead, while the other likely will be scarred psychologically for years to come by the devastating knowledge that he took another human life.


The student, John Pontolillo, was no doubt on edge - someone had broken into the house he shares with roommates hours before and stolen electronic equipment. After reports of more suspicious noises early Tuesday, he and his roommates searched the area, and he brought his sword. He surprised the intruder lurking near his detached garage. He later told police the man lunged at him and he struck back, partially severing one of the intruder's hands and piercing his chest. Before police arrived, the burglar bled to death on the floor.

The burglar, Donald D. Rice, wouldn't ordinarily deserve much sympathy. He was a career criminal with a long record of thefts. He had just gotten out of prison the previous Saturday after serving six months for a conviction in Baltimore County. By all accounts he was neither an admirable character nor an innocent victim.


But even burglars don't deserve to be killed with a razor-sharp sword. And Mr. Pontolillo - whose thinking may have been clouded by the adrenaline rush of fear, panic and anger - must now spend the rest of his life grappling with the anguish and remorse of having snuffed out another's life.

In June, Charles Village dry cleaner Harry Goodman shot and wounded a robber in his store. The man had robbed him repeatedly over the years, but Mr. Goodman expressed profound regret over the incident. "I did feel my life was threatened," he said afterward. "But I don't want people to think this is the way out." Even police officers, trained to use their weapons in potentially deadly situations, often suffer severe psychological trauma after a shooting that results in the death of a suspect. Most leave the force within five years of participating in a fatal shooting.

This is certainly nothing to celebrate. The glorification of the incident online and around town belies the horror of the killing and its aftermath. Even if it ultimately is judged to have been legally justified, the question of whether the situation couldn't have been handled differently will remain.

Police advise people never to take matters into their own hands if at all possible but to call the authorities instead. That advice is given to protect them against harm - not only from a potential assailant but from their own inadvertent missteps and lapses in judgment. Had Mr. Rice also been armed, the situation could have turned out very differently.

In hindsight, Mr. Pontolillo and his roommates put themselves at risk by searching the area without police. By the time Mr. Pontolillo, sword in hand, encountered Mr. Rice near his garage, probably neither man felt able to back down. Was protecting some possessions worth precipitating an event that will change the rest of his life? We think not. No amount of adulation as a modern-day ninja vigilante is likely to take away the pain Mr. Pontolillo is liable to feel in years to come as the awful reality of this gruesome episode sinks in.