(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Opinion writer

Donald Trump has chosen retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly to run the Department of Homeland Security, a post that will have great consequence in a Trump administration, given Trump’s vow of a much tougher approach to combating illegal immigration and internal terrorist threats, both areas that DHS oversees.

In that context, there is a quote that Kelly delivered in 2010 that libertarians and civil liberties experts see as troubling, and in need of further clarification. The Post account describes it this way:

Kelly learned firsthand the pain and loss suffered by many military families. His son, 2nd Lt. Robert M. Kelly, died in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban in 2010. Four days later, the general delivered a passionate and at times angry speech about the military’s sacrifices and its troops’ growing sense of isolation from society.

“Their struggle is your struggle,” he told a crowd of former Marines and business people in St. Louis. “If anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service, and not support the cause for which they fight — our country — these people are lying to themselves. … More important, they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to this nation.”

That quote, which was about members of the military fighting against the terrorist enemy, seems to suggest that one cannot criticize a war without being seen as anti-troops. That said, it could also mean that one cannot criticize the broader act of defending this nation without being anti-troops.

A full transcript of the speech, which was linked to in a Post article in 2011, provides a slightly different rendition of the quote:

“I know it doesn’t apply to those of us here tonight but if anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service, and not support the cause for which they fight — America’s survival — then they are lying to themselves and rationalizing away something in their lives, but, more importantly, they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to the nation.”

Libertarians and civil liberties advocates told me today that the quote, at a minimum, demands further attention during Kelly’s confirmation hearings.

“I think it calls for clarification,” Christopher Preble, the vice president for defense and foreign policy at the libertarian Cato Institute, told me. “The context in which these remarks were made is different than in the context of being an aspiring head of the DHS. It is worth asking General Kelly to clarify exactly what he meant.”

Christopher Anders, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Washington office, agreed.

“Senators should look closely at this speech and its implications,” Anders told me. “As secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, General Kelly will have an obligation to tolerate and respect the wide range of values and views of our big country.”

The larger context here, of course, is important. Trump recently tweeted that those who burn the flag should perhaps be punished by revocation of citizenship. During the campaign he repeatedly exhibited authoritarian tendencies, suggesting he would carry out war crimes (the killing of suspected terrorists’ families); undermining the prospects for a peaceful transfer of power by claiming in advance that the election’s outcome would be illegitimate if he lost; promising to jail his chief political opponent; vowing to impose a religious test for entry into this country; and flirting with various proposals to persecute Muslims or deny them equal protection before the law.

Meanwhile, several of Trump’s other top people have expressed stark views about Islam and Islamism. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, his choice for national security adviser, has said that Islamism is a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet” that “has to be excised,” and believes that sharia law is spreading inside the United States. Stephen Bannon, Trump’s pick for senior White House adviser, has said that the West is at the “beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.” Given all of this, any hint at intolerance of dissent from Trump’s choice of DHS chief would seem to merit further exploration.

“We know what Trump has said on the campaign trail about the treatment of Muslims and people predominantly from Muslim countries,” Cato’s Preble said, adding that the views of Flynn and Bannon gave him further pause.

“In this context, Kelly having made these remarks is a valid point of clarification,” Preble continued. “It’s a question I would hope senators would ask during the course of his confirmation hearings.”