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The Torture Moment

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This is a defining moment for America.

The way we respond -- or fail to respond -- to the revelations about the Bush administration's use of torture will delineate -- for ourselves and for the world -- the kind of country we are.

It is a test of our courage and our convictions. A test of whether we are indeed a nation of laws -- or a nation that pays lip service to the notion of being a nation of laws.

And everyone engaged in our public conversation has a role to play.

So far, the media are not getting high marks. They can't seem to shake their addiction to looking at every issue -- even one that pivots on questions of morality, not politics -- through the archaic prism of right vs. left.

So we got CNN's Ed Henry mainlining a right-left 8-ball at Tuesday's press briefing, asking Robert Gibbs, "Is this an example of this White House giving in to pressure from the left?"

And we got the Washington Post's Dan Balz saying -- in two different pieces -- that Obama's release of the torture memos "has stirred a major controversy on the right and left." According to Balz, "the anger on the right was expected. But Obama faces equally strong reaction from the left, where there is a desire to punish Bush administration officials for their actions... Obama owes his presidency in part to this constituency, who rallied to him during the battle for the Democratic nomination because he presented himself as a staunch and early opponent of the war in Iraq. Now they are demanding that he acknowledge their point of view."

Since when is the need to adhere to the laws that govern us a left-wing "point of view"? Is Thou Shalt Not Kill a "point of view"? When the police arrest a rapist, is it because rape is inherently, inarguably wrong -- or because that's the cops' "point of view"?

Isn't torture one of those things where there really is no legitimate other side?

And if this really is a question of right vs. left, how do Henry, Balz, and all the others framing the discussion that way account for Shepard Smith's table-slamming outburst on FoxNews.com's The Strategy Room? Was his "We are AMERICA! We do not fucking torture!" a left-wing point of view confusingly expressed by a right-wing commentator?

Memo to the media: Time to check in for a serious round of "right vs left" rehab. When it comes to torture, the only appropriate framing is "right vs wrong."

Obama and his team have had their own problems with the issue. Despite a commitment to looking forward, they failed to see the massive wall of public indignation directly in front of them.

After all the internal back-and-forth they apparently had about how to handle the issue, it was interesting to see how fast they reversed course -- the president quickly walking back from Rahm Emanuel's unequivocal "no prosecution" position.

Once the spotlight was turned on, it was impossible to sustain the let's-just-move-on stance. What is at stake is just too huge to sweep under the presidential rug. It leaves too big a lump in the middle of the Oval Office -- and too big a stumbling block in the path of Obama's presidency.

I understand the president's preference for "reflection" over "anger and retribution." But this is not about personal pique or a desire for vengeance. It's about the nation's fundamental morality.

Which is why it is imperative that we keep the pressure on the president, on Congress, and on the Justice Department. Not left-wing pressure. Not blogospheric pressure. Moral pressure. The pressure born of America's values.

Pressure to do the right thing. The moral thing. The legal thing. Pressure to keep the acts of the Bush White House from being implicitly condoned. And to keep the abuse of presidential power -- and the use of torture -- from becoming American precedent.

In pushing for a truth commission on torture, Sen. Patrick Leahy had repeatedly said that "we can't turn the page unless we first read the page." But we've actually read the page -- the torture memos -- and been horrified by what we're read. So now we need to act on that horror. And we can only do that by holding accountable those responsible for authorizing the use of torture.

The clock is ticking while the world waits to see if Yeats was right. Do the best of us really lack the conviction necessary to make sure that justice is done? Is it really only the worst of us who are full of passionate intensity? (See Rove and Cheney and Hayden coming out swinging, acting -- as John Cusack described them to me -- "like caged, cornered animals.")

And do the best of us become the worst of us if our passionate intensity does not make the leap from words to action?