Dr. Lawrence Davidson
There is no doubt that Julian Assange, the head of the Wikileaks organization, and Bradley Manning, the soldier who allegedly leaked U.S. classified documents, are being singled out and made examples of by the Obama administration. Their suffering constitutes a message which goes like this: if you inform the public of what the United States government is doing, no matter how illegal and disgusting it might be, our police and intelligence agencies will track you down and turn your life into hell. We will do that to you whether we can prove you committed a crime or not (as in the case of Assange) and we will do it to you even if it runs counter to our own legal codes (as in the case of Manning).
That is why Julian Assange is hold up in a British home under virtual house arrest devoting most of his energy to avoiding extradition to Sweden on what is almost certainly an exaggerated charge of sexual misconduct. The Swedes are cooperating with Washington and if Assange is extradited there he may well end up in the U.S. where, despite having not been charged with a crime, various politicians and talking heads have called for “punishment” of the most draconian sort. And it is not just Assange. Most of those involved with Wikileaks have been reduced to fear and trembling. As Glenn Greenwald puts it, “all of them, to a person, no matter what their nationality is, the thing they fear most is ending up in the hands of American authorities and in the American…justice system.” Greenwald notes the irony of it all. For the truth tellers, the land of the free has become a land of justice denied.
And, speaking of draconian punishment and justice denied, Bradley Manning who, for the past nine months, has been in incarcerated in the brig at Marine base in Quantico Virginia, is subject to treatment that is certainly cruel and unusual and thus illegal. He is in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. In the 24th hour he is taken into another room where he can walk about shackled. This is for exercise. If he stops walking at any time during this hour he is immediately returned to his cell. Periodically he is put under constant surveillance because the military says he is potentially suicidal. How did he get that way? He was not suicidal upon his arrest. If in fact he is suicidal now it probably because the U.S. military has subjected him to conditions that drove him in that direction. The Commandant at Quantico has apparently seen fit to turn his brig into a stateside version of one of those infamous black hole detention facilities used by the CIA. The ones in which the Bush gang conducted “torture by proxy.” At Quantico we have decided to torture Bradley Manning ourselves.
Sadly, all of this is being done on Barack Obama’s watch. Yes, the President has defended Gay rights both in military and civilian society, and he has pushed for the employment of people with disabilities. However, when it comes to the federal government’s actions in violation of its own laws, he has refused to interfere or punish. This has produced the most startling juxtapositions. The U.S. government can lie to its people and start a war on that basis that kills millions of people (the ultimate crime according to the Nuremberg trials) and Obama will not investigate and will not prosecute. He will in fact do worse than nothing, as when he put pressure on Spain to cancel its own investigation of crimes against international law under the Bush administration. But, if someone like Bradley Manning defies the American code of secrecy and reveals the truth, President Obama will allow him to be driven half mad and charged with “aiding the enemy” which carries the death penalty. But wait a minute. If your war is based on lies and manipulation and a good deal of official stupidity, it logically follows that the “enemy” is a contrived one. Under those circumstances does the charge of aiding such an enemy make any sense? Well, it makes sense if government secrecy has kept everyone mostly ignorant of the lies and other machinations. All of this makes you wonder how the man in the Oval Office sleeps at night.
And what about the rest of us? President Obama is not doing these things alone. What is happening to Julian Assange and Bradley Manning requires the cooperation or acquiescence of at least two additional groups.
1) The first group is made up of those employed to carry out the draconian measures now being practiced. You do not have to be familiar with the sociologist Max Weber to figure out how such people can do what they do, largely with impunity. They are mostly bureaucrats and bureaucracies have evolved so as to hide responsibility. President Harry Truman once reacted to this fact by putting a sign in his office that said “the buck stops here.” In other words, buried in organizations with layers of authority, are anonymous millions who can always claim that they are “just following orders.” And, as a number of psychological studies have shown, most of us do in fact “just follow orders” especially if we are enmeshed in a peer group which is doing likewise. To this might be added the fact that there is always a sub-group of order takers who get their adrenalin highs from hurting others (every combat platoon has one or more of these). They are the ubiquitous torturers, abusive prison guards, and lower echelon thugs that find employment with all governments, including Washington. They were particularly active under the Bush regime. To be sure there are laws against acting in a criminal fashion, even as a member of a government department. However, if your illegal actions are officially sanctioned, you are almost certain to get away with it. One will recall that the Bush gang, from top to bottom, is protected from prosecution by President Obama. Problems only develop when someone “blows the whistle” in a very public way. It is interesting that in such cases, more often than not, it is the “whistle blower who gets punished, and not the criminals. Assange and Manning are good examples of this.
2) The second group is the citizenry at large. Particularly in a democracy like the United States, these grossly inhumane acts by government officials are harder to carry on if the public knows about them and strongly objects. So there are two qualifiers here: a) if the public knows and b) if the public objects.
a) Secrecy, along with a less than aggressive media, is the way the American government attempts to assure that its own citizens do not know of its illegal doings. Until the age of the Internet this was relatively easy to do. Most of the privately owned media outlets are either whole heartedly conservative in outlook, and thus share the government’s attitude toward secrecy, or they are scared of the legal complications and bad publicity the government can cause them. There have been times in recent history when some news companies have acted in aggressive ways to assert the public’s right to know (one thinks of the Washington Post at the time of the Watergate scandal) but the present day is not one of them. This is demonstrated by the fact that there has been no concerted effort on the part of the American media to defend Julian Assange, much less Bradley Manning. The combination of a government addicted to secrecy and news businesses that are essentially castrated means that what the public knows is what the government and its media allies tell it. So, unless someone breaches the walls of this system, either by doing something incredibly stupid, such as torturing prisoners at Abu Gharib while being photographed, or something incredibly brave, such as making public thousands of incriminating government documents, the citizenry will know little.
b) However, there is the second factor and that is objecting if you do happen to learn that something is amiss. One cannot assume that such objection comes automatically. Most people are so engrossed in their private lives that they do not pay attention to what the government is doing, particularly what it is doing abroad. They are more than willing to give Washington the benefit of the doubt unless the media aggressively asserts otherwise. So, when Obama says he will not allow for an official investigation of the Bush gang is there a public outcry? No. For that matter, if Washington quietly dropped all the charges against Bradford Manning and Fox News failed to go ballistic over the issue, would their be a public outcry? No. In the absence of an aggressive media to stir the pot and keep the citizenry focused, the default position of the majority is always a local one. In other words, if it does not impact my life, I am not going to pay attention unless you make me do so.
It may well be that the U.S. government has already achieved its goal when it comes to Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. It has created an atmosphere of fear and trembling so as to reduce the probability that anyone else will soon come along and replicate their behavior. In this effort law and due process mean nothing to either the President, the men and women who carry out his orders, or the citizens who go about their daily affairs with only minimal awareness that these two individuals are being harassed and tortured in their country’s name. It is a sad, but hardly unique, situation. It makes one nostalgic for those days in the 1960s when there was a another war based on lies, but also an aggressively skeptical media and a military draft that impacted lots of citizens’ lives. It is no mistake that this combination, one that indeed got the American masses into the streets, is missing today.
Department of History
West Chester University
West Chester, Pa 19383
DR. LAWRENCE DAVIDSON is professor of Middle East history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA, and the author of America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (University of Florida Press, 2001), Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 2003), and Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing American National Interest (University of Kentuck Press, 2009).