PANETTA GREAT ON TORTURE…. With Leon Panetta slated to take over the CIA, for many of us, and I include myself in this, the first question is pretty straightforward: how is he on torture?

Atrios pointed to an op-ed piece Panetta wrote for a California newspaper in March, in which he took an unequivocal line: “Torture is illegal, immoral, dangerous and counterproductive. And yet, the president is using fear to trump the law.”

Before that item was published though, Panetta had a piece right here in the Washington Monthly on the subject. It’s worth re-reading given his new position.

According to the latest polls, two-thirds of the American public believes that torturing suspected terrorists to gain important information is justified in some circumstances. How did we transform from champions of human dignity and individual rights into a nation of armchair torturers? One word: fear.

Fear is blinding, hateful, and vengeful. It makes the end justify the means. And why not? If torture can stop the next terrorist attack, the next suicide bomber, then what’s wrong with a little waterboarding or electric shock?

The simple answer is the rule of law. Our Constitution defines the rules that guide our nation. It was drafted by those who looked around the world of the eighteenth century and saw persecution, torture, and other crimes against humanity and believed that America could be better than that. This new nation would recognize that every individual has an inherent right to personal dignity, to justice, to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

We have preached these values to the world. We have made clear that there are certain lines Americans will not cross because we respect the dignity of every human being. That pledge was written into the oath of office given to every president, “to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” It’s what is supposed to make our leaders different from every tyrant, dictator, or despot. We are sworn to govern by the rule of law, not by brute force.

We cannot simply suspend these beliefs in the name of national security. Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise. We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t. There is no middle ground.

We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.

That’s what I wanted to hear.

What’s more, Moira Whelan raises a good point about an important asset Panetta will bring to the CIA: “He knows how brains work inside the West Wing because he was there as White House Chief of Staff, and therefore will know how to provide information that gets attention in the way it should. Personally, I think this will give the IC a big advantage in terms of getting their point of view across in the Oval. Panetta will know how to be subtle, but also how to sound alarm bells as needed.”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.