Last week, Alberto Gonzales became confirmed as Attorney General.

As counsel to the president, he asked for and received legal advice on how to construe torture as narrowly as possible, passed it on to the White House and has defended these positions before Congress. Elected leaders from both parties have agreed that members of al-Qaeda – and so I presume any terrorist group – are now in practice exempted from humane treatment as prescribed by the Geneva Convention.

As Senator Sessions said in a question during the confirmation hearing, “With regard to al-Qaeda, I don’t think there’s anyone … on either side of the aisle, that would say that al-Qaeda represents a lawful combatant that is therefore entitled to the full protections of the Geneva Conventions … I mean, that’s pretty well undisputed, that they are not representatives of an organized state and that they don’t carry arms openly … and they clearly do not follow the laws of warfare in the surreptitious methods by which they bomb innocent civilians.” Gonzales replied, “Senator, that is correct.”

The Senator’s comments provoke a litany of questions that went unasked in Congress. How do you categorize a group of people upon which you have declared war but has no recognized nation? They pose a far greater threat than ordinary criminals, but can we honestly say they are a more odious and treacherous opponent than we have ever faced in the past?

Were Nazis worthy of humane treatment? Did Russian spies whose nation threatened us with nuclear annihilation – and we knew to be capable of doing so – pose less of a threat?

And does the fact that our opponents do not “fight fair” and bomb innocent civilians truly shock us?

Did not Vietnamese children come up to our soldiers with hand grenades in hand baskets? Did not North Korean soldiers booby-trap the dead? Didn’t we bomb Dresden and Hiroshima? Haven’t we known war is hell all along?

Mentioning these examples is not a relativist means to downplay terrorist tactics, but a means of showing it’s not time to abandon our principles.

To paraphrase a line from the movie “The Steel Helmet,” written and directed by decorated World War II veteran Samuel Fuller, “We’re Americans, and we have rules for everything, even in wars!”

We are a people that profess to value the rule of law and the freedoms and humanity it can secure. Though they may seem incredible to some of our opponents, we have sought to apply these laws and rules even in wartime.

As a soldier, Fuller recognized the inherent absurdity in giving humane treatment to a man who, a split moment before, was trying to kill you.

In fact, what could be more insane and contrary to sensible, prudent action?

Taking terrorists in the context of an opponent that threatens to kill us and our families where we live and work without warning, it seems madness to permit any accused terrorist humane treatment. This is the natural reaction, but as Americans, we have for generations prided ourselves, or perhaps deluded ourselves, into thinking we could do better than just what was natural, base and simple and instead find a better, more generous way.

This sort of moral righteousness, increasingly quaint and obsolete in the face of present dangers, has historically served a purpose. It was our ideals that separated us from them and helped convince others around the world we were worth joining with, and sometimes, worth imitating.

Now, with images from Abu Ghraib and backpedaling by our government on long held positions, we have a credibility gap abroad.

If we, as Americans, allow these things to continue without scrutiny or vigorously reporting on the innocent men and women we have held without trial or hearings, tormented and subsequently let go, then it’s time to question our patriotism.

Look at how jealously we guard our other values and freedoms, such as the right to bear arms, the right to choose, freedom of speech – Americans of all political persuasions are accustomed to defending against even the slightest erosions of these constitutional freedoms, even while other segments may seek to limit them.

Observing how vociferously we protect these rights, it’s difficult to understand how we can tolerate even the intimation of the erosion of laws against torture and against the humane treatment of all prisoners.

I am not navely suggesting that Americans have never before engaged in torture surreptitiously or by sending our prisoners to other nations to do our dirty work – ask Michael Scheuer.

But what is underway is something more insidious and more dishonorable. It is nothing less than our executive branch formulating a legalese rationale to weasel out of difficult achievements in human progress – achievements that involved the sacrifices of innumerable individuals.

When our executive branch seeks to undercut the spirit of our nation’s laws and international compacts like the Geneva Convention, it is undercutting nothing less than the cherished belief of every tortured American prisoner of war, alive or dead, who ever found comfort and self-worth in the fact that they were still an American and felt assured that their homeland was above stooping to such a low and barbarous tactic as torture.

The final irony is that torture is unreliable and secures us nothing.

We have rejected it untold times before, despite the seeming criticalness of the situation, precisely for this reason. Now, we have men and women in positions of power throughout our government who tell us that suddenly times have changed radically.

That we cannot keep faith with all of our long held principles and freedoms because the threat this time, this special, unique, and dangerous time – without parallel – calls for new paradigms and new tactics. What of it then?

I say times have changed radically, and it is time to let our elected officials know we have noticed.

Ellis can be reached at

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