The Case of Bradley Manning: What Are We Called To Do?

Bradley Manning

Pfc. Bradley Manning and friends: Tighe Barry, Medea Benjamin, and Chris Hager

The Case of Bradley Manning:  What Are We Called To Do?
©2011 by Alice Walker

As an elder of color born and raised in the United States, I have dreamed of a day when young white men, en masse, might rise to take up the cause of freedom and justice in defense of those manipulated, oppressed and stolen from around the world by our government.  That time seems to be beginning.  I am thinking of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange,  and Tim DeChristopher, in particular. (Their names may be Googled and ten minutes spent considering their different cases.)  Manning, a soldier in the U.S. military, imprisoned for leaking classified documents to Julian Assange of Wikileaks, Julian Assange jailed for publishing documents that “endanger government lives and secrets,” Tim DeChristopher sentenced to ten years in prison for fraudulently bidding on pristine land in Southern Utah in an attempt to save it from destruction by oil and gas interests.

Something transformative is happening here.  We must rouse ourselves not to miss it.

Of special interest is the case of Pfc. Bradley Manning.  Manning, a young man of twenty-three at the time, supposedly downloaded files that expose and elucidate the behaviors of leaders, dictators and actors all across the globe; these files he, again supposedly (since nothing has been proven) sent on to Julian Assange of Wikileaks who is charged with having published them. For this act, it should be noted, Assange has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.  I agree he deserves it.  For without someone having the courage to let us in on what is going on as people of power, prestige and money play with our world, how are we to know if we have a chance of saving ourselves, and this fragile planet home that is becoming so obviously weary of sustaining us?

At this point in my life, any person in his or her early twenties is very young.  And so, it is doubly hard to think of the following: that this young person, Bradley Manning, who has not been formally charged with anything, is forced, since last July, to live in a cell six by twelve feet, without natural light, for twenty-three of twenty-four hours a day.  That he is manacled and shackled whenever he leaves his cell.  That he is not allowed to exercise.  That he is intruded upon every five minutes by someone asking if he is all right: and he must answer. (This is not the same as having someone to talk to.)  That he is on suicide watch though resident psychiatrists have gone on record that he is not suicidal.  That he is permitted to leave his cell for only an hour each day to go to a small room where he may walk but not run.  He has no one to talk to. His clothes are taken from him each night and he must stand naked, outside his cell, each morning for inspection.  There is more, but this is enough for adults and elders and awakened youth to wonder deeply about who we are as a culture, and as a country.

Is there anyone who deserves this treatment? Let us ponder together.  Perhaps the people who bomb cities, poison water supplies, murder civilizations? Those who send drones and white phosphorus laden  missiles into apartment buildings, hospitals and schools? Perhaps those who invade countries and rip off resources so greedily the indigenous children die of starvation before the age of five?  Maybe those who make billions of dollars off a corrupt financial system only they understand, causing millions of people around the world to lose employment and become homeless?

Even in these cases, I would not agree the perpetrators should be humiliated, tortured and abused, in the manner that Manning endures. Though it would help our spirits tremendously if they were brought even to the outer neighborhood of justice. I believe more than ever in the dignity of life itself, and that it is a profoundly mysterious gift.  It is no one’s place to knowingly and willfully degrade it.

In 2008, Barack Obama said something heartening about the role of whistleblowers: “Government whistleblowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal….” What happens when our leaders make such statements is that our young people believe them. Perhaps Bradley Manning thought an Obama administration would understand the need to expose the secret machinations of governments that keep so much of the world in error and darkness. Perhaps he hoped “We are the ones we have been waiting for” applied to him, in his role as sharer of what has turned out to be a Pandora’s box of plagues and evils.  But also of transformation and healing.

In any case, what are we to do about Bradley Manning, “canned” as he is in his tiny dungeon of a cell?  Are we to let him languish there?  Lose his mind, there?  There have been reports that his health and mental faculties are declining.  Who are we if we let this happen?

Does it matter?

Have we reached a point where violence and abuse of naked, helpless people is applauded, not just in Abu Ghraib, but in Virginia?

The four percent of the human population of earth deemed sociopathic may well have no problem with the inhumane treatment of Bradley Manning (and it distresses me that the officer in charge of Manning’s “discipline” is a woman); perhaps to those who have no capacity for compassion the thought of this young man’s torture (and not a very large or strong looking young man either) causes no disturbance.  For the rest of us, however, there must be at least a moment of considering alternatives.

We know that we, most of us hopefully, worship freedom and love justice.  We would like to see both, along with compassion and kindness, brought more forcefully into the world.  We would be grateful also for tenderness and simple love.  While we dream of these things that our world so desperately needs – a world awash in weapons and wars of all kinds, alas – let us cultivate within ourselves and in all the horrid and repressive systems Bradley, Assange, and DeChristopher are likely to endure the one gift each of us might hope to receive on our own darkest day: Mercy.

Mercy, to be extended especially to Bradley Manning.  Mercy, extended also to his grieving mother.  For her suffering, as for that of  Julian Assange’s mother, there can be no final balm except exoneration and freedom for their sons.  Justice for their sons, who, one instinctively feels, have fabulous moms.

It is a sad culture that punishes its children for doing what they have been taught, and believe, to be right. Perhaps Manning was taught long ago to love and protect his neighbor. To love the world and the people who inhabit it; to despise the lies that cause their suffering and destruction around the globe.

If so, he was not alone in learning this.

If he is, himself, our neighbor, What then?  What are we called to do?  This is the question whispered always in the ears of those who would be both merciful and just.

Alice Walker