Two points about Bradley Manning’s mitigation plea, which, the Guardian tells us, “will disappoint Manning’s thousands of supporters around the world, who believe he undertook a courageous act of whistleblowing because his conscience demanded it.”
First point: as Arthur Silber has noted, the importance of these ‘whistleblower’ cases has nothing to do with the personalities involved. Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden: it doesn’t matter what kind of people they are, if you think they are ‘heroes’ or ‘bad people,’ if you’d ‘like to have a beer with them’ or would run a mile if you saw them coming. What matters is what they have done; what matters are the fragments of truth they have made available. If the sexual charges against Assange turned out to be true, it would have no bearing whatsoever on the importance of what Wikileaks has accomplished, the fissures it has made in the bristling walls of deceit that our brutal, stupid and venal elites around the world have erected to hide their misdeeds. The same goes for Snowden, Manning, or anyone else whose actions have made similar fissures.
It’s always a great temptation to succumb to the cult of celebrity, of course, to live vicariously through the snippets we happen to read here and there about some famous person, to see them as “heroes” who live out the courage or accomplishments or glamor that we can only dream of. And that’s fine for a flip-through of People magazine in the check-out line. But this is serious business. The actions of these whistleblowers involve taking on the power of corrupt and murderous state structures that can and will destroy individual lives and entire nations — structures that are wildly out of control and are devouring the very substance of human society. Actions that put a spoke of truth in the wheels of this monstrous machine are of incalculable importance. The ‘character’ of those who put in the spokes is of vastly minor importance.
Second point: I invite any critic of Bradley Manning’s mitigation plea to stand in his shoes for two seconds and show us how ‘tough’ they would be. Manning is facing a lifetime of penal servitude in a system that has already tortured him, battered him, humiliated him, abused him. He is facing the prospect of spending decades — decades — in a system run by people who demonstrably despise him. He will be housed with people — and more importantly, guarded by people — who hate ‘traitors’ and ‘queers’ and ‘weirdos’ and ‘sissies’ with a violent, virulent hatred. This is what he faces: years and years and years of it. What are you facing?
If I were Bradley Manning and facing a life like that, I’m sure I’d proclaim my ‘repentance’ too. I’d apologize, I’d weep, I’d throw myself on the mercy of the court, if it meant I had the chance to cut some time from my sentence in hell. Does anyone really believe – even for a moment – that a blazing statement of political principle would have somehow moved the judge: the same judge who has made a relentless series of rulings cramping Manning’s defense at every turn, and ensuring that the trial was a ludicrous, sinister sham which never addressed – and was designed not to address – the substance of Manning’s action and the crimes that he revealed? What good, then, would be an empty effusion whose only purpose would be to make all of us sitting safely behind our keyboards feel wiggly for a moment or two?
In his statement, Manning didn’t name any names, sell anyone out, implicate anyone else. He tried to mitigate his own further torture — but he didn’t betray anyone. A plea for mercy, an apology — however sincere or feigned — is an entirely different thing from betrayal. I’m sure that at almost any point in his long, torturous captivity, Manning could have turned ‘state’s evidence’ against Julian Assange and cut the sweetest of deals, perhaps even get a pardon or total immunity. He didn’t do that. He took the entire burden on himself, went through the entire ordeal by himself — and now he is standing there, by himself, waiting to feel the full draconian force of military law. No one else is there but him. No one else is at risk but him.
As far as I’m concerned, he can say whatever he has to say in that situation to try to mitigate the horror that is about to descend upon him. If the apologies and regrets and explanations that he is offering the court “disappoint” you, then that’s just too bad. Again I say: go stand in his shoes, face what he’s facing, and see what you’d do. Manning brought these truths to light; he has endured torture and captivity without betraying another living soul. If that’s not ‘heroic’ enough for some people, if he is now to be abandoned because he’s “let us down” — like a pop star who’s put out a bad record after a string of hits — then their “dissent” must be shallow indeed.
The “disappointment” also bespeaks an historical ignorance of what life is really like in brutal systems bent on crushing all effective opposition to the ruling elite. Anna Akhmatova — who displayed more moral courage in her lifetime than a whole stadium full of keyboard ‘dissidents’ — submitted to the humiliation of writing odes to Stalin in an attempt to save her son from the ravages of the Gulag. Osip Mandelshtam — another bold truth-teller, an ardent upholder of the “supreme value of a single human life” (Silber) against the implacable, inhuman brutality of the state — was forced to do likewise, in an attempt, like Manning, to mitigate a punishment he knew he could not survive. And like Manning, they did this without betraying anyone else, taking the pain and ignominy upon themselves alone. Yet the work of both helped give hope and sustenance and meaning to the lives of multitudes of people, over many decades.
Reality in such systems — systems that have openly demonstrated their willingness to torture people, lock them up for years without trial or kill them outright at the arbitrary order of the leader and his minions — is not a TV show, not a movie with well-marked ‘character arcs’ ending in triumph for the bruised but unbowed hero. It’s a dirty, ugly, degrading business, an uneven fight, pitting unarmed truth against vast, implacable, dehumanizing forces of violent domination. It is a war with many bitter defeats, both outwardly and in the souls of those caught up in it. It involves loss, destruction, humiliation, torment, ruin and doubt. There are no “heroes” in it, only human beings: some of them fighting to hang on to their humanity as best they can — and others who have surrendered their humanity to the forces of domination.
Bradley Manning doesn’t have to be a “hero.” He doesn’t have to make a stirring speech to give people a vicarious thrill for a moment before they click over to check their Facebook page or pop in another box set. He has shown clearly that he stands on the side of humanity. He has done something for humanity — and now he is paying the price for it. The very fact of his case has revealed the true nature of the system arrayed against him, and against us.
If you can do better, go do it.