Look, up in the sky, it's a moral quandary

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All of us tend to be selective in sorting out what we want to believe -- consider the selective reading of the Bible and the Constitution.

For example, those who condemn homosexuality and gay marriage on the basis of Scripture are shockingly silent on the sin of usury, which is much condemned in the sacred texts. Yet ancient spiritual leaders were so wise that they knew charging excessive interest was wrong without themselves actually owning credit cards, not even a Master of the Universe card.

But never mind that now, because credit cards are indispensable to our way of life, and -- come to think of it -- so is reasonable tolerance of other people's social behavior.

As for the Constitution, those who treat it as if it were the Bible also pick and choose the parts they believe in most with a religiously narrow focus.

Working in journalism, I naturally venerate the First Amendment. Yes, it will always be No. 1 for me. But for others, the Second Amendment is No. 1 because any limitations on free speech are nothing compared with limitations on assault rifles. The NRA gives the impression that if people would only shut up about guns, liberty would be guaranteed.

Now consider the Tea Partiers, who sincerely care about the Constitution. You will observe that they do not flock to join the American Civil Liberties Union, which also is passionately in the business of protecting the Constitution. That's because, as always, Americans read the same text and find different meanings.

To the Tea Party, the Constitution is not in the least remote from the 18th century, when it was written. It is a document of enumerated and thus limited powers and so, modern Americans, do not even think about doing anything that was not thought of back then. For example, drones, although it was probably good that they did not exist in those days, otherwise we might have a right to keep and bear armed heavier-than-air machines.

Some of you will be surprised to learn that drones are actually the subject of this column, but thoughtful readers will have picked up on the clue that I have been flying high over the terrain and identifying various ironies as targets for my literary missiles as if on remote control.

As it happens, and here's the point better late than never, drones are currently the greatest example of Americans believing selectively what they want to believe.

President Barack Obama is fast becoming the drone president and perhaps the Constitution-shredder-in-chief. It's a dubious distinction some of us (i.e., me) thought belonged to his predecessor, the man history and his supporters forgot because it's too embarrassing to remember.

Those of us who had a problem with what's-his-name asserting that the Constitution did not protect Americans because he said they were enemy combatants must also observe that Mr. Obama with his killing lists ordering death-from-on-high is in the same league. And so are his legal experts with their semantic gymnastics trying to justify treating American citizens as if they weren't citizens. They drone on, same as it ever was, sort of.

It's difficult, though. In my selective way, I concede that blasting some American al-Qaida member deep in Yemen seems reasonable. You can't have the drone read him his constitutional rights through a loudspeaker. My attitude is: Occupy any area that is clearly a battlefield in a war against America, die. But too often there is collateral damage, the modern term for innocent people dead. We are on a slippery slope in a toboggan of our own manufacture.

Worse yet, the administration won't quite rule out the use of drones in America in the future, now mostly only a threat to nudist colonies and only then when the weather warms up. Hurrah then for Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican Tea Party favorite from Kentucky, for staging an old-fashioned filibuster to demand more answers on the use of drones. Of course, filibusters are ridiculous but he did the best he could.

Other members of Congress are more concerned that the not-actually-in-combat pilots of the drones are being made eligible for a medal that outranks medals for valor such as the Purple Heart. This is sort of missing the point: It's the missions, not the medals, which need the attention, but it does put the finger on a fundamental unease.

Is America's use of drones honorable -- or just a practical response to a difficult war? Whether you look to the Bible or the Constitution, no selective reading quite answers the question, nor whether the interest on the nation's moral account is worth the cost. Up there in the clouds, we need clarity.

reghenry

Reg Henry: rhenry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1668.


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