Are We A Nation Of Laws Or Of Whims?

Laws and rules are not suggestions. Those who break them should suffer consequences.

That thought is brought to mind by four disparate people: Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Kathleen Kane and D. Bruce Hanes.

Manning, an Army private, leaked a ton of classified documents to WikiLeaks.

Those documents showed President Obama to have been a liar. This is a surprise? Presidents have lied, down through history: George W. Bush (“compassionate conservative”), Bill Clinton (“did not have sex”), George H.W. Bush (“no new taxes,”) Ronald Reagan (“no arms for hostages”), Nixon, LBJ, Ike … all the way back to George Washington (“conceal my identity when making land purchases in western Pennsylvania”).

Manning’s released documents mildly embarrassed the administration and discomfited some allies, but they didn’t tell our enemies much new information. Al-Qaeda leaders already knew we were trying to kill them.

Snowden’s documents told the world that the National Security Agency has been spying on … well, the world, friends and allies, ordinary citizens and even extraordinary citizens. We were outraged, but not especially surprised. Spies, too, have been with us since Nathan Hale.

Kane, whose job it is to defend the laws, doesn’t like one such law, the one preventing gay people from getting married in Pennsylvania, so she won’t defend it – though as a candidate for her office, she said she would not pick and choose which laws to defend.

Hanes, the issuer of marriage licenses for Montgomery County over near Philly, decided he too doesn’t like that law, so he is issuing marriage licenses to gay people. Never mind that he swore to uphold the law.

These four people are all full of hogwash.

Suppose, that this newspaper decided that local police departments had been picking on people whose last names began with letters near the end of the alphabet: S through Z, for example.

So we would publish the names and sordid details of people charged with drunk driving whose last names began with A through R, but we would not publish those details for people whose last names began with S through Z.

Readers would be outraged, justifiably so.

Or, as Lincoln Institute President Lowman Henry points out in the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, suppose a county sheriff decided to issue gun permits to anyone – without doing background checks. Convicted felon? Here’s your permit. Mentally unstable? Here’s your permit.

The issue here is not what should/should not be classified. The issue here is not same-sex marriage.

The issue is whether we are to be a nation governed by laws, or by whims.

I think Manning and Snowden should be punished – and, perhaps, pardoned, in due course.

Kane and Hanes should recant, or resign. Either be faithful to your office, or leave it and then work to change objectionable laws.

As for Kane, she’ll continue to bamboozle voters with the support of political zealots who detest a predecessor, current Gov. Tom Corbett, because Americans perversely insist that if someone is a villain, that person’s rival is a shining paragon of virtue.

Psst. Not true. Two people can both be wrong. See “Zimmerman/Martin.”

Yes, I am pleased that the documents released by Manning did become public. Yes, I am pleased that Snowden’s government-spying information is now public.

Yes, I am pleased that the federal Defense of Marriage Act – a stupid Republican-led attempt to legislate morality and buy votes of gullible people in the process – has been ruled unconstitutional.

And, in a reversal of a formerly held position, I would not oppose changes in law to permit civil unions or same-sex marriage, since those ceremonies would neither pick my pocket nor break my leg, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson.

Had Manning or Snowden resigned from their positions, and then made their disclosures, I would have felt differently about whether they should be punished. How differently? That would have depended on what they did and how they did it. Hypothetical questions are difficult to answer.

But my faith remains in the Constitution, and in the concept that we are a nation of laws, not of arrogant would-be dictators who think that the governmental position or office they hold in trust is actually owned by them, to do with as they wish.

Civil disobedience can be a noble thing, but it is still disobedience. Going back to the civil rights disturbances of the 1960s, it has been accepted by both disobeyers and enforcers that punishment is expected.

If, after reflection, the good is determined to outweigh the bad, sentences can be commuted; pardons can be issued to mitigate the punishment.

But the way to change laws is not to ignore them.

These four people are lawbreakers.

Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: