Let’s review Manning’s detention over the last nine straight months: 23-hour/day solitary confinement; barred even from exercising in his cell; one hour total outside his cell per day where he’s allowed to walk around in circles in a room alone while shackled, and is returned to his cell the minute he stops walking; forced to respond to guards’ inquiries literally every 5 minutes, all day, everyday; and awakened at night each time he is curled up in the corner of his bed or otherwise outside the guards’ full view. Is there anyone who doubts that these measures — and especially this prolonged forced nudity — are punitive and designed to further erode his mental health, physical health and will? As The Guardian reported last year, forced nudity is almost certainly a breach of the Geneva Conventions; the Conventions do not technically apply to Manning, as he is not a prisoner of war, but they certainly establish the minimal protections to which all detainees — let alone citizens convicted of nothing — are entitled.
Manning is getting far worse treatment than Timothy McVeigh, Jared Loughner, or your run-of-the-mill serial killer. It’s important to remember here that Manning didn’t covertly leak classified information to a foreign enemy. He leaked classified information to a website knowing that all of it would eventually be published. That’s an important difference. Manning knew that the U.S. government would know what information was leaked, and that it would know who would have access to the leaked information (everyone). The U.S. government has also conceded that it’s unlikely Manning’s leaks did any substantial harm.
That’s a much less serious offense than that of, say, Aldrich Ames, who secretly turned classified information over to a hostile nation, and whose treachery resulted in the deaths of CIA assets. Moreover, the government didn’t know the extent of the information Ames had sold, making the actual harm quite a bit worse. Yet Manning is also getting far worse treatment than Ames ever got.
So why is that? Here’s my guess: McVeigh, Loughner, and Ames merely killed people, or caused people to be killed. Their transgressions were despicable, but they didn’t splash any embarrassment back on the government itself (although you could argue that Ames embarrassed the government to some degree, at least in that it took so long for him to be discovered). Manning, on the other hand, embarrassed the government. In the community of people who believe government to be the noblest, most honorable, most vaunted possible calling, that’s a far worse offense. It’s probably the worst offense.
Manning embarrassed the Pentagon by revealing how easily a relatively low-ranking soldier could steal and pass off reams and reams of classified information. He embarrassed the State Department because the documents he leaked showed just how petty, vindictive, and underhanded U.S. diplomacy can be—for example, they showed that our Secretary of State ordered U.S. diplomats to spy on and collect DNA samples from leaders of other countries, including our allies. Manning also showed just how manipulative, back-stabbing, and ugly diplomacy can be in general. He exposed the personal peccadilloes and private lives of foreign leaders, and revealed that our own diplomats frequently gossiped about all of that. In short, Manning pierced the veil of high-minded sanctity in which high-ranking diplomats and heads of state tend to cloak themselves.
I don’t think Manning is the hero some have made him out to be. If he had leaked information to blow the whistle on some specific government wrongdoing, I’d be right there with the people celebrating him. But this seems more like a vindictive, reckless act undertaken by a guy who by all appearances had a grudge to bear—not to mention some likely psychiatric problems. He did break the law, and because what he did was more of a petulant information dump than genuine whistle-blowing, I’m fine with him being prosecuted for the laws he broke.
That said, he should only be prosecuted for the laws he broke, not the trumped up charges the military is now piling upon him. The government’s treatment of Manning is absolutely shameful. But it’s also revealing. Murder a government official, bomb a federal building with the aim of starting a violent revolution, covertly sell off national security secrets to America’s primary global enemy—for all of these acts you’ll be treated like a conventional criminal. Which is to say mostly humanely, with the same constitutional protections as those accused of less heinous crimes. (Unless they tag you as a terrorist.)
But make the wrong, self-important government officials look foolish, and boy will there be hell to pay.
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