Did you read Walter Pincus’s important article in Thursday’s Washington Post? Pincus–whose extraordinary reporting has been a rare beacon of truth and accountability in these last years–shows through historical example that actions once considered, and treated, like war crimes are now condoned and sanctioned by legislators relying on immoral legalisms crafted by criminal yes-men like David Addington and John Yoo and, of course Dick Cheney. I’m talking about torture. Specifically, waterboarding. In 1947, the US charged a Japanese officer with war crimes for carrying out a form of waterboarding on a US civilian. The officer was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor.

No wonder millions of Americans–you can read their words in letters to the editor or hear their words on talk radio–express a sense of loss. I’m not just talking about the tragic loss of lives in Iraq or the loss of jobs or the loss of America’s good name in the world. I’m talking about a loss of our moral standing as a great nation. What use is power if corroded by torture and fear?

I also think of our loss as a democracy. Think of this: There have been other periods in American history when torture has been committed, when habeas corpus has been suspended; when innocent civilians have been imprisoned; when secret prisons were created; when due process has been denied; when private records have been subpoened; when illegal domestic spying has been approved; when the President of the United States has repeatedly and consistently broken the law.

But they have never all happened at the same time. They have never all happened under the watch of the same Administration. They have never come with the promise that this song will remain the same for the rest of our natural lives. Because of it, I believe there has never been a more important time to raise our voices and hold our leaders accountable as there is today.

Every other chapter of excess and overreach in American history has been followed by a period of regret, and then reform. But what do we make of this President’s claim that the war on terror is a war without end? Does that also mean that the war on our fundamental rights and liberties knows no end?

The true test of a great nation’s highest ideals aren’t what it espouses when times are good, but the ideals and values it embraces when times are bad. I believe that the best defense against excess are informed and engaged citizens, unafraid to speak their minds, unafraid to hold their leaders accountable, unafraid to remind us of the principles that made this nation great.