Old enough to fight, but ...

Controversial legislation under way in several states, including South Carolina, would lower the drinking age to 18. The thinking driving the change is that 18- to 20-year old men and women who are mature enough to risk their lives fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved they are disciplined and responsible enough to legally buy alcoholic beverages.


Perhaps, but not everyone in that age group -- including many college kids -- have not demonstrated such maturity and responsibility. This is why organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving are adamantly opposed to any change.

That position is fueled by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies showing that setting the drinking age at 21 has cut traffic fatalities by 13 percent for the nation's 18- to 20-year olds. It has also curbed, at least to some degree, the drinking mania gripping many of the nation's college campuses.

Also standing in the way of lowering the drinking age is a law Congress passed in 1984 that penalizes states that do permit drinking alcoholic drinks under age 21 to forfeit 10 percent of their federal highway funds. This is what prompted recalcitrant states to put the under-21 crowd on the wagon.

Moreover, there is little sentiment nationwide to allow drinking under the age of 21. A Gallup Poll last year found that 77 percent of Americans oppose reducing the drinking age to 18.

Even so, there is much truth that young people who risk their lives fighting for their nation's freedom abroad are old enough to drink a beer at home. "If you can take a shot on the battlefield, you ought to be able to take a shot in a bar," says South Carolina state Rep. Fletcher Smith, D-Greenville.

Smith also may have the answer to the conundrum. His legislation would allow military personnel, 18 years and older, to purchase booze in his state. This acknowledges that young people in the military are, generally speaking, more responsible in their conduct than their counterparts in college and elsewhere. This is a fair and reasonable distinction acknowledging that responsible behavior should be rewarded, and irresponsible behavior should not. Let's hope that, if Smith's bill passes, that the federal government will not withhold highway funding from his state.

Doing right by the military should not be punished.

Of course, this whole plan may be derailed by the fact that it seems to run counter to the equal protection granted under the U.S. Constitution -- the proposal wants to give some 18-year-olds more rights than other 18-year-olds. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.