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by William H. Benson

March 8, 2012

     At nine o’clock on the evening of March 5, 1770, a single British sentry was standing at his post in front of the Custom House in Boston when a rabble of several hundred hooligans gathered about that single guard and began to taunt him. Eight additional British soldiers rushed out into the cold and snow to assist him, carrying with them their loaded muskets, bayonets, and drawn swords. The mob pelted the Redcoats with snowballs, oyster shells, and sticks, and then shouted, “Kill them! Kill them!”

     The soldiers fired into the mob, and five men dropped dead. This, the Boston Massacre, was the opening salvo in the American Revolution.

     John Adams, a thirty-four-year-old attorney in Massachusetts, was appointed to defend the soldiers and their captain. At the first trial, for Thomas Preston the captain, the jury found him not guilty. At the second trial for the soldiers, Adams told the jury, “Soldiers quartered in a populous town will always occasion two mobs where they prevent one. They are wretched conservators of the peace.”

     “Facts are stubborn things,” Adams said, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

     Facts are indeed stubborn things. They get in the way of our prejudices, they disturb our own pet theories, they block our false hypotheses, but, if permitted, they will point to the truth.

     Thomas Gradgrind, in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, shouted repeatedly at his students, “In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!”

     To that I respond, “Your facts tell you one thing; but what about those facts you do not know. What do they tell you?”

     The jury found two of the eight soldiers guilty of manslaughter, but Adams saved their lives: their punishment was that their thumbs were branded.

     If there is one fact that emerges from that bit of history, it is that people resent invasion. They will react badly to soldiers from distant lands marching upon their ground, even if the invasion is considered a defensive move or a liberation. Territories are fixed, boundaries are drawn upon maps, and those that dare cross those lines invite retribution.

     For decades the British living in America defended themselves, fought their own wars against the French and the Indians, and now they resented the King dispatching Redcoats to do for them what they had always done for themselves. Those Redcoats never felt welcome in Boston.

     Human beings’ minds are hard-wired to react negatively to attack and invasion. Citizens of the Confederacy in the South deeply resented the North’s invasion of their territory, and so for them, it was not the Civil War but the War of Northern Aggression.   

     The countries of Europe in 1940 deeply resented Nazi Germany’s march across the European continent. Asians across the Pacific chafed under the Japanese empire’s ruthless domination, but the  war was on with the United States when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. North Korea invaded South Korea. First, the French and then the United States invaded Vietnam, and both were trounced and evicted. In 1980 Russia invaded Afghanistan and experienced a similar fate.

     Saddam Hussein swept into Kuwait and claimed the country for Iraq, but the first George Bush drove him back out. Al Queda and its suicidal terrorists invaded New York City and Washington D.C., and the second George Bush invaded Iraq, nine years ago this month, only to meet the rawest forms of opposition, and they were not snowballs, oyster shells, and sticks.

     Each of these instances demonstrate the push and shove that takes place at the global level, but is felt at the individual and personal level. That individuals resent invasion and assault is a fact.

     In the twentieth-century the historian Arnold Toynbee published his ten-volume work, A Study of History, in which he argued that “sooner or later every civilization encounters a challenge that threatens its very existence.” Lincoln faced that kind of a challenge in 1861, and so did Winston Churchill in 1939. Vietnam did not threaten the United States’ existence in 1964, and neither did Iraq in 2003, despite fallacious claims of weapons of mass destruction.

     Israel has continually felt its very existence has been threatened ever since its independence in 1948, and today the Israeli’s want to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities. However, the Palestinian people feel resentful that the Israelis settled upon their own land. Two different people claim ownership to the same land, a similar situation that the Native Americans faced.

     Arguments can quickly escalate into battles and war: that is a fact. Snowballs, oyster shells, and sticks one day, and bullets and cannonballs the next.