Ever since terrorists used our own planes to bomb us and kill thousands of purely innocent people, America's most daunting challenge has been to remain better than those who did that to us.
It was to defend and counterattack with human compassion and human decency. It was to fight to save the civilized human race, not for personal revenge. It was to defeat our hate-filled enemies for the greater purposes of right and good, not for ego or territory.
Perhaps hardest of all, it was to resist the temptation to dismiss the values just articulated as the outdated rhetoric of a Pollyanna, no longer practical.
These guys were as bad as the Nazis and their sneak attack was as evil as that of the Japanese imperialists at Pearl Harbor. As then, having nothing to fear but fear itself, we had morality and humanity on our side.
They could hurt us. But we could lose only at our own hand.
So, coming up on six years later, how are we doing against ourselves morally? In a word, poorly.
We've invaded an irrelevant country and given the terrorists a convenient place to foment sectarian civil war and kill randomly our soldiers and innocent civilians.
We took over a prison in the country we were occupying and behaved as psychopaths, degrading and dehumanizing detainees, doing so with such sick arrogance that we took photographs that the world got to see, serving us right.
A congressman told me he employed a staff intern who practiced the Muslim religion. He asked her what she thought when she saw those prison pictures. He said she told him that while she knew our country was fighting thoroughly evil people, and that while it might well have been that some of the taunted and humiliated prisoners were very bad people, she couldn't help thinking that those atrocities were being done to her personally.
Multiply that reaction by an exponent of millions throughout the Middle East, even worldwide. Consider, then, whether America is meeting that central and daunting challenge to be better.
We've been torturing people. The Bush administration doesn't say that, of course. It says only that it will do what is necessary to extract vital information to protect us. We rely on euphemistic talk of "enhanced interrogation techniques."
Here we fail before we even get to the tough moral question. We lose on the easy competency question.
Last week a group of psychologists and other specialists commissioned by the Intelligence Science Board reported that there is no good evidence in history or science that harsh methods inflicting horrible pain on detainees produces solid information.
The commission said we got good information otherwise during World War II -- taking time and pains to become expert in our enemies' language and customs. It said our domestic police officers, for decades, have availed themselves of tricks other than torture to solve crimes.
It said the Bush administration has relied on outdated practices from the 1950s, even -- and this ought to give us serious pause -- old Soviet methods.
How did the Soviet Union turn out, anyhow?
Sen. John McCain, in some ways the bravest and most independent man in prominent American politics, has been telling us as much. And he speaks with more experience than, say, George W. Bush or Dick Cheney.
Even if torture worked, our aspiration to greatness would preclude it. But it turns out we needn't bother ourselves with the inconvenience of aspiring to decency and humanity, or with uncomfortable introspection on whether we're fighting for values or revenge.
Lucky for us, we can skate by on this point with simple reason and logic.
John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.