Since Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Chile's former dictator, has been found unfit by British doctors to stand trial in Spain for the torture and murder of his fellow countrymen (and some Spaniards), I have a modest proposal for the British authorities: Extradite Margaret Thatcher instead.

The former prime minister has been one of Pinochet's most vociferous supporters, cogently and, indeed, brilliantly arguing that since Pinochet helped Britain in its silly little war with Argentina over the Falklands, the authorities should overlook petty accusations of torture, murder, sexual abuse and terror that were so much the hallmark of his 17-year reign in Chile. After all, a friend is a friend. Hear! Hear!

Thatcher not only publicly supported Pinochet, writing letters to the editor and issuing public statements; she even went to visit him after he was served with a warrant from Spain. In a letter to the Times of London, she conceded that "there were indeed human rights abuses in Chile and acts of violence on both sides of the political divide," but it was up to Chile to come to terms with its past. Of course, she mentioned the Falklands.

Here, then, is the sagacity and courage for which Thatcher is so well known. To point out that the government did nothing different from the occasional street thug or revolutionary is, anyone must admit, a whole new theory of law--breathtaking in its application, as bold as the privatization of British Air. The woman is, as Ronald Reagan was the first to notice, simply extraordinary.

Ah, but it is not only Reagan and his successor, George Bush, who find Thatcher so impressive--so do their successors. When her name is dropped in Republican Party circles, it produces a great hush. She is considered a latter-day Churchill. True, he staved off the Nazis and she merely won back the Falklands, but we live in less dramatic times. Nonetheless, in a recent presidential debate, Steve Forbes listed Thatcher--along with Lincoln, Washington, Reagan and Churchill--as someone who had a "profound influence" on him. Lincoln, not to mention some of the others, might object to the company he is being forced to keep.

No one is better suited to stand trial in Spain than Baroness Thatcher herself. With her keen mind, her erudition and, of course, the courage of which all Republicans are in awe, she would defend the principle that a national leader can kill and torture his countrymen--as long as he's an ally. This, of course, was basically the U.S. position during the Cold War and explains why we befriended Pinochet and may well have played a role in the coup that brought him to power. Too bad it resulted in the death of Chile's elected president, Salvador Allende.

But the Cold War is over and much of the world is trying to establish a new principle of law: Thou Shall Not Torture and Murder Innocent People. It's not all that hard to grasp. It is being applied to Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb president, who is charged with crimes against humanity--the killing of 6,000 to 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995, for instance. Another person sought by the International War Crimes Tribunal is the officer in charge of that massacre, Gen. Ratko Mladic. If they're smart, they will quickly adopt a pro-Falklands position.

What shall we do with these people? Shall we--you and I--ignore their crimes because they were elected officials or were cheered on by thousands of their countrymen? Does that permit the multiple rape of a woman prisoner, the sodomizing of a man--beatings, whippings and other stuff too gruesome to go into? Will Thatcher explain to some torture victim, someone still awakened by nightmares and haunted by fears, that it's okay, Pinochet was there for Britain in its darkest moment? I'd like to see that.

The old brute must be silently laughing. He didn't let prisoners go for medical reasons. On the contrary, he inflicted those reasons. What did he care about the rule of law? And the Falklands? What was his cause? Democracy? Don't make him laugh. Argentina was his enemy.

So let Pinochet go. He is old and feeble, probably addled by an unfamiliarity with due process and meticulous legality. But those who defend him, those whose concern for human rights is so casual it is downright meaningless, ought to explain their position--and so should their groupies in the Republican Party.

Bring out the victims of torture, collect the gruesome photos, let the 3,000 dead howl from their graves and put Margaret Thatcher in the dock. She has much to account for.