10/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

John McCain, Sarah Palin, and "Rights"

Governor Sarah Palin's acceptance speech was the best horror movie I've seen in a long time. I came to this realization after Palin exclaimed that, "Al Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America, and he's worried that someone won't read them their rights." Coming from someone sworn to uphold the Constitution, and someone who is the chief protector of the Constitution in Alaska, I was, well, surprised that Governor Palin doesn't have a larger appreciation for what she plainly considers to be an outmoded notion of "rights."

Last night, the future prospects for "rights" under a McCain/Palin administration seemed to improve when Senator John McCain, in his acceptance speech, said "We're dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal and endowed by our creator with inalienable rights. No country - no country ever had a greater cause than that."

But, placing this divergent rhetoric side by side, how can we understand which view of "rights" would be the predominant one in a McCain/Palin administration? The answer came later on in Senator McCain's speech.

Senator McCain is, beyond any doubt, a true patriot. While he was a prisoner of war, he realized that "I loved [the United States] not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency, for its faith in the wisdom, justice, and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for."

At moments, it almost seemed like he was suggesting the need for a less toxic relationship between our ideals and our tactics in the "War on Terror," "I know how the military works, what it can do, what it can do better, and what it shouldn't do." Here he may even have gone so far as to make coded reference to the heated debate over whether terrorism is best countered by the military or by law enforcement agencies.

But his vague language about the military's optimal role, and his regrettably Manichaean claims ("I know how the world works. I know the good and the evil in it") have to be considered in light of a comment he made at the outset of the speech's especially long recitation of his POW experience. "I hate war. It's terrible beyond imagination." While this comment sounds almost pacifistic, I cannot but be reminded of General William Tecumseh Sherman's similar exhortation, "War is Hell." As Michael Walzer has argued, '"War is Hell" is doctrine, not description: it is a moral argument, an attempt at self-justification" Thus if war is Hell, then even the most depraved tactics are permissible, provided that it speeds our victory.

If it is beyond any doubt that John McCain is a true patriot, and it is, then in his speech it is just as plain that in defense of the country he so loves he would use any tactic available in its defense. In the War on Terror, that means torture, rendition, violations of sovereignty, illegal wire-tapping and surveillance, and our "rights," our most cherished ideal, the core of the cause Senator McCain so loves, trampled beneath the booted feet of military necessity.