Furious, many Bostonians called for vengeance. While the outcome of the Revolutionary War might not have been at stake, some foundational pillar of our rational freedoms could have been lost had the outrage erupted into vigilante violence.
The man who in some small way saved America at that moment was future president John Adams, then a young Boston lawyer who, risking his own reputation and safety, accepted the responsibility of ensuring that the soldiers received counsel and a fair trial. Aware that it set him against an immense tide of passionate public anger, Adams personally undertook the defense of the soldiers, offering as a brave statement of the democratic ideal that "it's of more importance to community, that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt should be punished." He later reflected that championing orderly law over knee-jerk retaliation was "one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country."
It was an act that is soberingly reminiscent of the risks and sacrifices undertaken by attorneys in another emerging democracy today. The Iraqi defense lawyers for Saddam Hussein and his co-defendents find themselves in a position very similar to Adams, where fulfilling their sworn duty to the public trust puts them at dangerous opposition to the violent unpredictability of public outrage.
The magnitude of the case at stake today in Iraq is much greater and more lethal; three attorneys have already died at vigilante hands for accepting a role in the fight to make Iraq a fair and just democracy. They, like Adams, have taken the brave step of understanding that democratic justice must involve the controversial process of playing fair with those whose cards are only evil.
Their fight is harder than Adams': Saddam Hussein is no redcoat footsoldier. His crimes were not the spontaneous reaction to a chaotic moment that resulted in the Boston Massacre. He followed no orders except those of his own demented brain, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives through programs of systematic oppression and violence.
The people devastated by his cruelty want payment in blood. It is difficult to fault them for being reluctant to exchange instant retribution for the more measured process of proving guilt and meting punishment in court. But for the future health of Iraq it is critical that the law be permitted to run its course.
If Iraq's future is to be separated from Saddam, it must exact justice with transparency and fairness, rejecting the wanton simplicity of killing him out in a field. Because the scale of wrongdoing in Saddam's trial is so much greater, the importance of adhering to and honoring the code that Adams and his Iraqi counterparts stood for is magnified as well.
A democracy that honors the rule of law and not of guns must bring its justice to bear with this nobler kind of vengeance. As Adams said, to protect the innocent from wrongful persecution, any accusation of guilt must be objectively proved. The triumph over evildoers is greater when the reckoning is claimed by a people who know that their enemy has been given every chance he didn't deserve, and that when he stands condemned he knows that he has been dealt the justice of a free, fair and mighty nation.
The law must reside outside of passion, away from forgiveness, from retribution and from the righteous fury of the wronged. It takes a very strong society to ensure its worst offender the impartiality of the courtroom.
It takes a brave soul to defend a criminal in the name of his justly outraged victims. But doing so is the greatest testament to the fortitude of a free and rational country. When the wicked are fairly tried, their condemnation affirms the doctrine that just law is stronger than anyone who stands against it. The deep wounds Iraq has suffered have inevitably turned the establishment of democratic law into a painful and bitter struggle. The instability and violence that continue to reign there must be overcome before Iraq can be expected to give up the desire for instant, fiery revenge. But its Adamses, who are committing their lives and fortunes to the triumph of law, are already striving towards that goal. Hopefully, their example will eventually establish in Iraq a culture that proclaims the courage of democratic rule.