Should Durham have to pay a hefty price to the three Duke lacrosse players? Damn right they should.

There’s lots of talk about the $30 million that lawyers for the railroaded Duke lacrosse players reportedly said they wanted out of the city. I’m not saying $30 mil is the price Durham should pay for its incompetence and corruption, but we need to pay something. After all, WE are the ones who put these people in office so they could wreak such mayhem.

Mayor Bill Bell disagrees. He says everybody he talks to calls this highway robbery. That’s sort of like film critic Pauline Kael who wondered how Richard Nixon won in 1972 when everyone she knew had voted for McGovern. Bill needs to get out more. People I talk to think Durham needs to go to the woodshed on this. People are telling me that it’s the only honorable thing to do, which makes it highly unlikely that Durham’s leadership would support it.

News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders agrees with Bell. In today’s column he called the players “little darlings,” referred to their 15 months in hell as an “inconvenience,” threatened physical violence if the city were to pay the players, and played a not-so-subtle race card by suggesting that the players’ travails made them miss the season finale of “Friends,” a TV show that irked some blacks who thought it, like “Seinfeld,” was too white.

But back to the money. Why do I think Durham needs to take a big hit? Because the city’s leaders will learn nothing from this sad episode unless taxpayers get hurt in the pocketbook. This is the way the world should work: You mess up and you pay a price. Without that, there is no incentive to do the right thing next time. If Durham skates on this there is no reason for it to look at the performance of its criminal-justice system and find the flaws. Things will just go on on as usual, and “as usual” is simply not acceptable. The players, who reportedly are seeking actual reforms as well as a monetary settlement, seem to feel that more should come out of this than simply “moving on.” I agree.

A huge payout that affects our property tax rate (full disclosure: I AM a Durham resident and a taxpayer) would, one would hope, anger Durham’s voters enough that they clean house of every elected official who has for years enabled a dysfunctional criminal justice system. If that happens, $30 million will be a cheap price to pay.