If anyone thinks that in this time of conservative disarray, Rush Limbaugh has lost his audience, he hasn't.

I can vouch for that. On Tuesday, my column suggested that Americans perhaps should not celebrate this Independence Day in the usual ways, should instead observe the holiday through reflection and atonement.

My reason: the dearth of public outrage and shame over the policies of torture and open-ended detention that have marred the war on terror.

We, the people, I argued, had in this case not stood up as we should for the ideals upon which our nation was founded. So, perhaps, just this once, we didn't deserve a parade.

It was, without doubt, hyperbole - with an earnest purpose.

Scanning my e-mail inbox Tuesday morning, I was pleased. Responses were running about 50-50. For every e-mail calling me commie scum, another endorsed the moral point, including a couple from Catholic priests.

Then Rush gave my piece a dramatic reading on his Tuesday show. His intent was not to praise my Swiftian panache. He urged his listeners to let me know what a rotten person I am.

My computer screen soon filled with missives with angry exclamation points in the subject line.

I will say this: Rush's listeners have a zest for insult and invective. Correct spelling, not so much. Also, I'm unclear what my sexual orientation (hetero, by the way) has to do with this topic. Wishing death on someone you've never met is unkind, to a degree. And telling someone to move to another country stopped being a witty riposte somewhere around 1967.

On Wednesday, this column "blew up" on the Internet, as the saying goes. It was posted, usually with harsh words, to Drudge and other Web sites. The e-mails ran into the thousands. Some were complimentary; some were critical but very thoughtful. I thank the writers of each type. Many were just plain nasty, in predictable ways.

After a few days spent being called a traitor, several observations:

Just seven years ago, who would have ever thought that being against torture could prove so controversial? When did the running of Turkish prisons become an integral part of the American Way?

Will we ever move beyond this dead-end view: If you criticize America on some point, you are unpatriotic, and can't possibly love or honor your country?

If you're a parent, then you know boundless love. Yet, sometimes your child may do something really bad. Then you feel anger and shame. If you're a good parent, you let your child know how wrong that deed was. And you take corrective action.

None of this means you don't love your child. Speaking up when your child errs is a proof of love, not a denial of it.

Why is it any different with your country?

Another thought: If I'd written the same column but substituted the word abortion in all the places where I wrote torture, would all those same people be calling me a hate-filled traitor? Why are some moral objections to national policy laudable, others contemptible?

During the Clinton scandal, some wrote long screeds about how America had been shamed and humiliated. Were they unpatriotic?

For the record, I love the United States of America. Always have, always will. I thank God for letting me be born here. I am a misty-eyed idealist about the Declaration, the Constitution and the Founders.

That's why I wrote Tuesday's piece. I want us to defend with utmost bravery and purpose the legacy of liberty that has been vouchsafed to us. I want us to be all we should be, that shining city on the hill.

So, go ahead, knock my logic or prose style. They're fair game. Scorn the shape of my nose, my manliness, and all the other stuff my kind correspondents attacked.

But do not, do not, question my patriotism. Or that of any fellow citizen. Such words are unworthy of what we owe one another as Americans.

On a very different note: The first forum in The Big Canvas, a citizen dialogue about the future of arts and culture in this region, will be held Tuesday at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown. This Great Expectations initiative will also convene four other forums around the region in July. If you care about culture, taxes, economic development or your kids' education, you might want to take part. To register, call 215-854-5956 or go to www.greatexpectationsnow.com to register.