For the defense


"The American Civil Liberties Union would defend the Rev. Jerry Falwell, but he certainly would not defend its work" was the gist of my argument with a close friend more than 20 years ago in a Georgetown bar.

In our college days, when youthful idealism had not been beaten about by the inevitable disappointments of an adult life, I was a liberal's liberal.

If only people cared more about the less fortunate and government programs worked better, the problems of poverty, oppression and racial strife could be solved, went my mantra. I was shaped by a divorced mother raising two children on a teacher's salary and on playgrounds and ball fields where one's ability, not skin color or bank account, was paramount.

A scholarship to a private high school, where I met my friend, opened my eyes to the often supercilious world of the elites. I was a Nick Carraway in a world of Tom and Daisy Buchanans.

My friend took a more each-person-for-himself approach to the issues of the day. He was not a callous conservative, but he did not think government programs were the answer. He believed people had the ability to rise above their circumstances with hard work and a little bit of luck.

Of course, my friend's good fortune included having a father who was a surgeon, a mother who was a super-successful real estate broker and brothers and sisters who were close and supportive.

The MacMahons had a townhouse in Georgetown, a farm in Virginia horse country and the ability to provide their children with the best education and experiences possible. They were also as generous as could be, allowing me to share their home as I tested my idealism when working for the District of Columbia Public Defender Service.

If life had a predetermined career track, my friend, with his University of Virginia and Tulane law degrees, would be a partner in a corporate firm helping rich companies get richer.

He did dabble in that world for awhile. But today, Edward B. MacMahon Jr. has caught the national media's attention in a case as far removed from helping big business as Mr. Falwell is from addressing an ACLU convention.

Every time I hear or read about my friend defending Zacarias Moussaoui, who once was identified as the "20th hijacker," I recall those conversations of two decades ago. Then, we could not have imagined a 9/11. Nor could I have thought possible that Ed would one day be appointed to take such a case. Defending the despised did not seem to be part of his life's rM-isumM-i.

I knew Ed would be successful, not solely because of his upbringing and education but also because he had a glowing self-confidence, smarts, charm and Kennedy-esque looks that were bound to lead to great things. He was even then a person of substance, style and great gregariousness.

Life does indeed throw surprises. Our youths leave indelible memories of the people whose lives touch ours, reflections that play a part in how we view each other for decades to come.

As Mr. Moussaoui's well-dressed, articulate attorney appears on television or is quoted in a newspaper, I think back to the nights at an Alexandria pizza joint drinking beers, trading arguments and sharing dreams.

Ed, who loved a good story as much as he relished a good time, once garnered the nickname "Divide by 10," meaning many of his great tales had their share of embellishments.

Of course, there can be no exaggerating the seriousness of the Moussaoui case. Nor the bravery of the lawyers who are fighting for his life, often without their client's blessing.

The only contact I have had with Ed in recent years was via an e-mail in which I said that I greatly admired his courage in taking on this case and that I was glad to see he was doing well. He suggested I drop by sometime and have dinner with the family.

So as he talks about the wrongness of seeking the death penalty against a person the government admits killed no one, I reflect on how our two-decade-old bar banter has come full circle.

Richard Pretorius teaches journalism courses at Catholic University. His e-mail is

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