On March 5, 1770, a line of British soldiers fired into a crowd of Boston citizens, killing five. The British commander, one Captain Preston, was promptly charged with murder, but he, and Tory loyalists, argued that it was self defense — the crowd, vastly outnumbering the British soldiers, taunted, provoked, and first assaulted them. An unpopular case, to be sure. When no-one would defend Preston’s men, John Adams stepped forward. One account, referencing Adams’ closing:
He was resolved that that pure and elevated cause [of liberty] should not be soiled and debased by an act of individual injustice. He undertook the defence, supported by his younger but distinguished associate Josiah Quincy, and far from flattering the angry passions around him, he called upon the jury in their presence to be “deaf, deaf as adders to the clamors of the populace,” and they were so. To their honor a jury drawn from the excited people of Boston acquitted the prisoner, and to their equal honor that very populace, instead of resenting the language and conduct of his advocate, loaded him immediately with additional proofs of their confidence.
These are the stories we tell each other about who we are as a people — that, oppressed by a tyrant and beset by his soldiers, still we would not strike an unjust blow. Even to our enemies we extended the dignity of the law.
Is Adams’ example untimely? Do we, in nominal service to patriotism, extol the shell of his example, and forget the substance? Something to consider, perhaps, when we talk about what rights alleged terrorists “deserve.”