"We do not torture," said the President. And that's that, right? I mean, if you can't believe the Bush administration, who can you believe? No torture. Period, end of sentence.
But . . .
What does it say to you that the claim even has to be made?
Bush spoke in Panama on the last day of a five-day swing through Latin America to promote free trade. He was addressing controversy over secret CIA prisons in foreign countries. America, Bush reminded us in case it had slipped our minds in the 20 minutes since he last reminded us, is at war.
Guess that would explain all the dead people. And yes, war is not a nice business under the best of circumstances. It is less so when you fight a stateless enemy that strikes from shadows.
But we've been at war before, nasty, brutish wars, one war with civilization itself on the line, yet somehow, we always managed to be the good guy. That is not to say our soldiers and sailors and fliers were always good, immune from committing atrocities. It is not to say our officials were always good, untouched by dirty deeds done in clandestine ways. Finally, it is not to say our cause was always good, free from the taint of imperialism or expedience.
But we - the collective we, the official we, the face shown in light of day we - were the good guys.
It occurs to me that maybe I've larded that statement with so many caveats as to drain it of meaning. I'm not trying to be cute. Rather, I'm trying not to sound naive while at the same time getting at something important:
We were the nation of moral authority, the nation of moral high ground, the nation that lectured other nations about human rights. And you know what? People believed us. They rush to our shores because there is freedom here, yes, because there is opportunity here, yes, but also because we stood for something, which was more than the tinpot tyrants who ran their countries could ever say.
What a difference a presidency makes. "We do not torture," he says.
When I heard that, my first thought was a one-liner: He's been torturing me for years.
But you know, this just ain't funny.
In the name of fighting terror, we have terrorized and in the name of defending our values, we have betrayed them. We have imprisoned Muslims in America and refused to say if we had them, why we had them, or even to provide them attorneys. We have passed laws making it easier for government to snoop into what you read, who you talk to, where you go. We have equated dissent with lack of patriotism, disagreement with treason.
And we have tortured.
Yes, Bush says we don't do that kind of thing but, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, who you going to believe, him or your lying eyes?
We ignore our lying eyes, I think, because we are afraid, because we saw what happened Sept. 11, and we never want to see it again.
I'd never suggest we ought not fear terrorism. But we should also fear the nation we are becoming in response. We should fear the fact that we have abrogated moral authority, retreated from moral high ground, become like those we once chastised.
"We do not torture," says the President.
I can remember when that went without saying.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Leonard Pitts Jr. (email@example.com) appears regularly.