Friday, March 5, 2010

John Adams and Lawyers Working Terrorism Cases

Emotionally, it can be a hard thing to see people accused of atrocities benefiting from our legal system. However, in terms of our essential values--objective justice--and maintaining the moral high ground that makes our nation appeal to people around the world, it is essential.

See: Targeting Justice Department Lawyers for Work in Terrorism Cases is Misdirected

As with everything under the sun, the current tensions over current Department of Justice lawyers who worked on unpopular cases has a precedent, in this case one emerging from the very revolution that established our country.

John Adams, our second President, set the standard for placing essential values over emotions when he went acted as legal counsel to British soldiers accused in the Boston massacre, one of those iconic incidents that contributed to sparking full scale colonial revolt against King George.

In 1770, British troops shot and killed five civilians in Boston. I am always hesitant about citing wikipedia, but in this case the text provides a significant insight into how the incident parallels today:
"Captain Preston [the British officer in charge] and the soldiers were arrested and scheduled for trial in a Suffolk county court. The government was determined to give the soldiers a fail trial so there could be no grounds for retaliation from the British and so that moderates would not be alienated from the Patriot cause. A problem was that no lawyers in the Boston area wanted to defend the soldiers, as they believed it would be a huge career mistake. A desperate request was sent to John Adams from Preston, pleading for him to work on the case. Adams, who was already a leading Patriot and who was contemplating a run for public office, nevertheless agreed to help, in the interest of ensuring a fair trial."
Writing in his diary, Adams expressed fear he felt for his own safety, as well as that of his family from more radical elements of the revolutionary movement. He also wrote of "...hazarding a Popularity very general and very hardly earned: and for incurring a Clamour and popular Suspicions and prejudices..."

In the end Adams concluded: "It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country."

Vigorous defense of the unpopular as laid out by the laws of our land, and when convictions occur a justice that does not impose cruel of unusual punishment, is a basic value. The public may not feel the need to like it, but it should be respected. Certainly, the careers of people pursuing such work should not be tarred and feathered. These lawyers provide a service that can powerfully inspire the imaginations of the people overseas who are wondering if they should side with us or with the authoritarian guys in the caves.

If we master our fears and project our values we will win these imaginations over hands down. The other road--providing no real legal defense, substandard lawyers, or a system that cannot provide any verdict other than one pre-determined by an emotional mob--ends up making us look a lot like the the states our cave-dwelling enemies covet.

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