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Originally published Sunday, September 24, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Leonard Pitts Jr. / Syndicated columnist

Where have you been, Colin?

Colin Powell is late. Late by weeks, late by months. Truth to tell, late by years. "The world," he wrote in a letter to Sen. John McCain last week...

Colin Powell is late.

Late by weeks, late by months. Truth to tell, late by years.

"The world," he wrote in a letter to Sen. John McCain last week, "is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism."

The eyes goggle at the word, neon obvious in its understatement. Beginning to doubt? "Beginning"?

Au contraire. Surely the world began to doubt when we barreled unilaterally into Iraq, crying "WMD! WMD!" Surely, the world began to doubt when, finding no WMD, we declared that not finding WMD didn't matter. Surely, the world began to doubt when it read headlines of our soldiers committing acts of torture at Abu Ghraib. Surely, the world began to doubt when news broke of the U.S. sending alleged terrorists to countries where they could be tortured by interrogators. Surely, the world began to doubt when Dick Cheney lobbied to exempt the CIA from rules prohibiting torture. Surely, the world has doubted for a long time now.

Powell's letter was meant as a show of support for a group of dissident GOP senators on the Armed Services Committee — McCain, John Warner, Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins — who joined Democrats in rebuffing a White House legislative attempt to reinterpret Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

The White House wanted to allow the use of torture in the interrogation of supposed terrorists, including a technique that simulates drowning. President Bush also wants to be able to try alleged terrorists without allowing them to see, much less rebut, the evidence against them — the very definition of a kangaroo court.

It's a mark of how far we have fallen since Sept. 11, 2001, that these things are even being discussed, much less, seriously. So, belated as it is, Powell's evocation of morality also feels, paradoxically, like the timeliest of reminders for a nation that has so obviously forgotten who and what it is supposed to be.

Before Sept. 11, this country whose moral authority much of the world is "beginning to doubt" was a nation whose moral authority inspired much of the world. Imperfect and even hypocritical as we often were, we were in many ways the world's moral policeman, the nation that held other nations accountable on issues of human rights.

We preached that gospel to Beijing, Moscow, Havana. Friends and enemies might have thought us a tad too idealistic, a bit too naive, a Boy Scout in the community of nations, but many of them admired us, too, for our decency, our square-jawed spirit of can-do, our simple faith in the power of right.

Then we got scared. And fear changed everything.

We are often told that terrorists threaten our "way of life." We hear this so often that it's jolting to realize it's not true.

Oh, they threaten our lives, certainly. Your life, mine. But our "way" of life? No.

Granted, that's a broad and vaguely defined term but still, no. Whether you take it to mean things frivolous (baseball, MTV, fireworks on the Fourth) or things fundamental (freedom of speech, equality under the law, the native idealism of our national character), there is no way suicide bombers and fanatics with box cutters can destroy our way of life.

Unless we let them. Unless we, in fear, knuckle under and destroy it ourselves.

This, I think, is the line in the sand drawn by four GOP senators and the former secretary of state. A line that says, finally — beyond all politics and partisanship and manipulation and fear — enough.

I don't mean to minimize the threat terrorist fanatics pose to your life and mine. But vital as it is that our lives be protected, there are things that matter more. Meaning the essential character of our nation.

Experts say torture is an unreliable tool for interrogation; it often produces false confessions. But even if that were not the case, even if we had to choose between saving Americans and preserving America, it should be an easy call.

Kill me before you kill my country.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: lpitts@herald.com

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