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As Bradley Manning Trial Begins, Press Predictably Misses the Point


The Trials of Bradley Manning [1]

The CNN headline [2] read as follows: "Hero or Traitor? Bradley Manning's Trial to Start Monday." NBC went with [3] "Contrasting Portraits of Bradley Manning as Court-Martial Opens." Time magazine's Denver Nicks took this original approach [4] in their "think" piece on Manning, "Bradley Manning and our Real Secrecy Problem":

less generous [5] than Nicks, calling Manning the "weirdo [who] tried to bring down the government," a man who was "guilty as hell" and "deserves to do time."

"Private Manning was a self-absorbed geek who should never have enjoyed the level of access that he did," Stanley wrote. He went on to argue that Manning's obvious personality defects should have disqualified him for sensitive duty, and the fact that he was even hired in the first place is the real scandal of this trial:

His personality breakdown was there for all to see [6] – criticising US policy on Facebook, telling friends, "Bradley Manning is not a piece of equipment", and even entertaining "a very internal private struggle with his gender". He told hacker Adrian Lamo that he "listened and lip-synced to Lady Gaga's Telephone while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history." You go, girl.

All of this shit is disgraceful. It's Chumpbait.

If I was working for the Pentagon's PR department as a hired press Svengali, with my salary eating up some of the nearly five billion dollars the armed services spends annually [7] on advertising and public relations, I would be telling my team to pump reporters over and over again with the same angle.

I would beat it into the head of every hack on this beat that the court-martial is about a troubled young man with gender identity problems, that the key issue of law here rests inside the mind of young PFC Manning, that the only important issue of fact for both a jury and the American people to decide is exactly the question in these headlines.

Is Manning a hero, or a traitor? Did he give thousands of files to Wikileaks out of a sense of justice and moral horror, or did he do it because he had interpersonal problems, because he couldn't keep his job, because he was a woman trapped in a man's body, because he was a fame-seeker, because he was lonely?

You get the press and the rest of America following that bouncing ball, and the game's over. Almost no matter what the outcome of the trial is, if you can convince the American people that this case is about mental state of a single troubled kid from Crescent, Oklahoma, then the propaganda war has been won already.

Because in reality, this case does not have anything to do with who Bradley Manning is, or even, really, what his motives were. This case is entirely about the "classified" materials Manning had access to, and whether or not they contained widespread evidence of war crimes.

This whole thing, this trial, it all comes down to one simple equation. If you can be punished for making public a crime, then the government doing the punishing is itself criminal.

Manning, by whatever means, stumbled into a massive archive of evidence of state-sponsored murder and torture, and for whatever reason, he released it. The debate we should be having is over whether as a people we approve of the acts he uncovered that were being done in our names.

Slate was one of the few outlets to approach the Manning trial in a way that made sense. Their story took the opportunity of the court-martial to remind all of us of the list of horrors Manning discovered, including [8] (just to name a very few):

line-height:150%;font-family:Symbol;mso-fareast-font-family:Symbol;mso-bidi-font-family:
Symbol”>·         failed to investigate [9] hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape, and murder by Iraqi police and soldiers, according to thousands of field reports…

line-height:150%;font-family:Symbol;mso-fareast-font-family:Symbol;mso-bidi-font-family:
Symbol”>·         recorded [10] in Iraq between 2004 and 2009, including 66,081 civilians. Leaked records from the Afghan War separately revealed coalition troops' alleged role [11] in killing at least 195 civilians in unreported incidents, one reportedly involving U.S. service members machine-gunning a bus, wounding or killing 15 passengers…

line-height:150%;font-family:Symbol;mso-fareast-font-family:Symbol;mso-bidi-font-family:
Symbol”>·         gunned down [12] a group of civilians, including two Reuters news staff…

This last incident was the notorious video in which our helicopter pilots lit up a group of civilians, among other things wounding two children in a van, to which the pilots blithely commented [12], "Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle."

Except that there had been no battle, none of the people on the street were armed, it was an attack from space for all these people knew – and oh, by the way, we were in their country, thanks to a war that history has revealed to have been a grotesque policy error.

Itsome people actually want to celebrate him as a gay icon [13]. Who next, the Kray twins?

Wow. We're the ones machine-gunning children, and yet Manning is the one being compared to the murdering Kray twins? And Jesus, isn't being charged with the Espionage Act enough? Is Manning also being accused of not representing gay America skillfully enough on the dock?

Here's my question to Johnson: What would be the correct kind of person to have access to videos of civilian massacres? Who's the right kind of person to be let in the know about the fact that we systematically turned academics and other "suspects" over to the Iraqi military to be tortured? We want people who will, what, sit on this stuff? Apparently the idea is to hire the kind of person who will cheerfully help us keep this sort of thing hidden from ourselves.

The thing is, when it comes to things like the infamous "Collateral Murder" video, whether it's Bradley Manning or anyone else, any decent human being would have had an obligation to come forward. Presented with that material, you either become part of a campaign of torture and murder by saying nothing, or you have to make it public. Morally, there's no option.

Yes, Manning went beyond even that. One can definitely quibble about the volume of the material he released and the manner in which he released it. And I get that military secrets should, in a properly functioning society, be kept secret.

But when military secrets cross the line into atrocities, the act of keeping these secrets secret ceases to have much meaning.

The issues to be debated at this trial are massive in scope. They're about the character of the society we've all created, not the state of mind of one troubled Army private. If anyone tries to tell you anything else, he's selling you something.