Chris Hayes tonight had a section entitled "What About ..." where he discussed what he called "what aboutism." In Cold War days, when the West accused the Soviet Union of one atrocity or another, the response was "Well, what about Jim Crow?" Or "What about the Vietnam war?" Hayes says that the correct response would be to admit America's failings regarding Jim Crow and Vietnam, but that that does not let the Soviet Union off the hook for its crimes: "These things aren't mutually exclusive. The moral universe is not zero sum," he said.
Hayes then went on to discuss the present-day "what aboutism" being practiced by proponents of the torture regime -- What About Drones? How can you be outraged by mistreatment of prisoners when the Obama administration rains down missiles that target militant jihadists, but which cause "collateral damage" of civilian deaths? His argument is to admit the immorality of drone attacks, but to shift the focus back to torture. He condemns the drone attacks as well, but rightly says that the torture argument is a separate and discrete issue: "These things aren't mutually exclusive. The moral universe is not zero sum."
So far so good. It's the argument I myself would make if a torture apologist said "What about drones?" But what came next gave me pause for thought.
He presented a montage of torture apologists making the argument -- some Fox bozo, then one of the $81 million torture psychologists, then Dennis Miller -- but he included video of a journalist (I think it's Fox News's Ed Henry) asking the question of President Obama's press secretary, Josh Earnest: "Can you explain how the President believes that it's un-American to use these techniques, but it was okay to ramp up the drone policy and basically thousands of people around the world, innocent civilians, killed?" That was followed by another torture apologist, and then Henry again: "What's the moral equivalency there? How do you have moral authority when innocent civilians are killed by drones?"
Hayes's response is kind of mealy-mouthed: "Now, the appropriate response to this new 'what-aboutism' is twofold. First, as a basic matter of both law and moral principle, killing enemies in combat is sometimes permissible. Torturing them, however, never is."
Excuse me, Chris, but I thought we were talking about drones; that's not "killing enemies in combat" in the sense that you're in a firefight where that enemy fighter is shooting at you. It's playing a video game while you're sitting in an office in Tampa, launching a drone and then going on your coffee break.
But what really gave me pause for reflection was the fact that Ed Henry's question of Josh Earnest struck me as quite legitimate. My response to that question would be, "Yes, I agree that killing even a legitimate target -- plus any innocent civilians who might be in the immediate area -- is wrong." Josh Earnest, however, cannot give that response. The President's press secretary can't very well say "Yes, we've killed innocent people with drones, and it's reprehensible, but nevertheless it's a policy that we're continuing."
I like Chris Hayes a lot, the torture revelations sicken me, and I have serious misgivings about the morality of the drone program. But if you're a wholehearted supporter of the drone program -- as the President's press secretary must be -- how can you claim the moral high ground?