Richard Sanders is being called an impetuous crank who ought to be punished for his boorish behavior. Maybe so. It won't change this: He is definitely onto something.

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Richard Sanders is being called an impetuous crank who ought to be punished for his boorish behavior.

Maybe so. It won’t change this: He is definitely onto something.

Sanders is the state Supreme Court justice who couldn’t take it any more. About a week ago, he was back in Washington, D.C., listening to a speech by President Bush’s attorney general, Michael Mukasey, when he snapped.

“Tyrant! You are a tyrant!” Sanders yelled at Mukasey, then walked out.

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The outburst made national news. Supreme Court justices don’t typically trash-talk at the top of their lungs. Mukasey also collapsed later (in an apparently unrelated fainting spell).

So now there’s talk around Olympia about whether Sanders is losing it or should be censured in some way. The chief justice of the high court, Gerry L. Alexander, weighed in, saying Sanders damaged his reputation.

Hardly. I bet we look back at this moment as a harbinger of a great debate. One where the rude guy was in the right.

What was Mukasey saying when Sanders corked off? He was defending America’s biggest disgrace of the past eight years: our use of torture.

That word wasn’t in the speech, of course. It never is. But Mukasey was saying legally it was OK to jail foreigners indefinitely without charging them. And to set aside the Geneva Conventions when questioning them.

In other words, to torture them. To electroshock, sexually humiliate, drug, beat. To waterboard, which the CIA now admits it did at least three times.

What Sanders heard in the speech was an Orwellian attempt by the U.S. government to varnish over this sorry history. To shovel it with technicalities. To avoid acknowledging in plain English what we did. Which is: We tortured.

So he stood up and shouted.

“I think it was an impulse,” he told The Seattle Times’ Ken Armstrong. “At that particular time, I didn’t have a chance to reflect on it. I didn’t plan it out in advance. It just happened.”

Not exactly what you might call judicial restraint. But a public service anyway.

Because right now there is an intense debate over what to do about torture. Not whether to continue it — that hopefully ended with the election. Rather, whether we should scour back over what we did. Should Congress investigate? Convene a truth and reconciliation panel?

Mukasey says: No. Because whatever happened, it was all in good faith. Whatever we did — from gulags to extraordinary renditions — the intent was noble. It was to protect the country.

That may be true. But Sanders’ tantrum was saying good aims don’t matter. You stick with your core principles in chaos and crisis, as well as in peace and prosperity. Or there’s nothing left but power.

Last week we shipped Osama bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Hamdan, from Gitmo back to his home in Yemen. He’s to be freed.

For six years the U.S. tried to deny this low-level functionary basic rights, then tried to lock him up for the rest of his life. It took a team of lawyers from the military and Seattle firm Perkins Coie suing their own country to stop them.

Which was really just another way of saying: “Tyrant! You are a tyrant!”

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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