On Tuesday, Jose Padilla was sentenced to 17 years and four months in federal prison for conspiring to commit terrorism — even though the judge declared that the government failed to prove he was a terrorist to start with.

Most Americans don’t care. But they should. Here’s why.

When Padilla was arrested in May 2002. John Ashcroft accused him of carrying a “dirty bomb” into the United States.

Yet, even though he was an American citizen, Padilla was charged with no crime. Instead, he was labeled an “enemy combatant” and held and tortured in a Navy brig for three and a half years without being able to see a lawyer or defend himself in a court of law.

Only when the Supreme Court agreed to review his case did the Bush administration drop the dirty bomb talk and, instead, accuse him of conspiring to commit terrorism — in the Middle East, not the U.S. They produced no evidence that Padilla ever committed an act of terror or helped plan one, yet they still managed to put him away for 17 years — while Osama bin Laden, of course, remains free.

The Padilla case is chilling proof of how willing the Bushies are to throw the civil liberties of American citizens out the window as part of their war on terror.

The trumped-up arrest and conviction of Jose Padilla does not make us any more safe — but it does leave us all far less free. This time was Jose Padilla. The next time, it could be you or me.