09/29/2006 12:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Torture Became Law, How Outrage Dies

First, they came for the addicts. And because the word "drug" was so frightening to otherwise sane Americans, they countenanced treatment involving beatings, the wearing of humiliating outfits (drag for men, whorish make-up and revealing clothes for women), sexually degrading language, stress positions, forced exercise, food deprivation, sleep deprivation and unrelenting emotional attacks.

And when some addicts refused our system's kind offer of such "treatment," they were incarcerated for years and were said to be "in denial" of their problem. And when people in pain couldn't get the medication they needed because we were afraid they'd turn into yet more demon dope fiends, we labeled them addicts and left them to writhe in agony or kill themselves.

Then, they came for the children, who after all, might become addicts if we didn't scare them Straight. And because we so feared the drug menace, the beatings, sexual humiliation, gagging with Kotex, public denunciations, exclusion from education and denial of bathroom access to the point of incontinence were extended, right down to the youngest children sent for "residential care." In schools, we yielded to searches, to public urination for testing, to standardized tripe that avoids analysis and complexity.

So should we be at all surprised that Americans accept food deprivation, sleep deprivation and hypothermia for suspected terrorists? We think it's OK to force "bad" kids into the wilderness to live on lizards in freezing temperatures; we think, in fact, that this will cure their depression or addiction or defiance. We think, stranger still, that "defiance" is something that should be "cured."

Our President was first quoted in the New York Times while at Yale defending fraternity butt-branding with hot metal as "no worse than a cigarette burn;" others in the administration can't see the difference between being forced to stand for hours and choosing to do so.

The polling on torture isn't reassuring either: word the question to frighten the public, and you get massive majorities favoring it.

And so, scared Democrats vote away our rights: fearing attack ads showing them as soft on terror, not recognizing that a posture of supine submission wins far fewer votes than a principled stand, even for a position voters might personally not hold.

Throughout the drug war, throughout the war on terror, inch by inch, we have given up our compassion and our freedom. Now we're standing not on a slippery slope, but at the mouth of the abyss. The law President Bush will sign today legalizes torture and detention without appeal. Are Americans still American enough to recognize that we have become unrecognizable?

Will we stand up and defy those who believe that freedom is slavery or will we continue to believe that surrender to authority is strength? Or have our years of accepting torturous treatment for young or addicted Americans inured us beyond outrage and lulled us into creepingly, ineluctably accepting the unacceptable?