Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who, some have argued persuasively, is a war criminal, argued that leaders of nations whose job it is to protect those nations must approach that task in an amoral, "realpolitik" way.
Which is to say, they should ask how they, as individuals, might answer moral questions having to do with major national security threats but must set personal morality aside and do what is best for the nation so they can protect and defend it.
Despite my lack of respect for Kissinger, I understand and respect that perspective.
But I also understand that human beings have to be profoundly careful when they assert the need to abandon personal moral thinking.
I think President Obama is in one of those situations now as he seeks to justify the power he has assumed to kill American citizens who have become al-Qaida leaders and, thus, enemy combatants.
And you know that he's put himself in a difficult situation on this issue when even the editorial board of The New York Times begins to disagree with Obama and question his approach, as it did this week in this editorial. That editorial board, after all, is generally supportive of Obama and his policies.
Just as there are necessary moral questions to be asked about torturing prisoners, so there are necessary moral questions to be asked about having executive authority to order the killing of Americans abroad.
The rules for this, as so far (not very well) explained by the administration, are far too fuzzy to allow the rest of us to feel confident that our constitutional rights are being protected.
What would be helpful for all of us, including the president, is for religious leaders and moral philosophers to lead a national discussion about how to handle all this.
In the meantime, of course, any president who knows for sure that an American abroad has turned into an enemy who presents a clear and present danger to the American people will find it easier to ask forgiveness after acting to remove that threat than to ask permission before doing so.
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DO NOT PASS GO, DO NOT COLLECT $200
The part of the story about two granddaughters of Fred Phelps leaving the toxic Westboro Baptist Church was this reaction by a church spokesman: "If they continue with the position that they have, those two girls, yeah, they’re going to hell.” Someone recently offered this description for that kind of rigidly ideological thinking: It's being certain of all the answers before you even know the questions.