Judge Col. Denise Lind sentenced Pfc. Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning) today to 35 years in prison for offenses connected with his unauthorized release of government documents to WikiLeaks in 2009-10 when he was stationed in Iraq. Reading his whole story, I experience the emotions Aristotle associated with tragedy—pity and fear. But Manning’s personal history and character are so troubled that he is no tragic hero, except that he emerged with a modicum of dignity after months of abusive treatment in the Marine brig at Quantico, Va., and now has endured an overwrought prosecution with sustained decorum.
The unfolding plot of Manning’s story is also an American tragedy. It places in a harsh light the confused ethics of the U.S. military and American society. The leading stories at the head of Manning’s releases were of violations of the laws of war in which innocents were killed and for which the perpetrators were either not charged or given light sentences. If the violence of these situations were Manning’s motivation for his enormous dereliction of duty, there is an aggrieved conscience at the root of his crime. But the commission of such a large-scale revelation suggests a moral sensibility shaped more by the culture of celebrity than in any serious moral formation, whether in the Army or before.
The question of Manning’s responsibility is further aggravated by his technical prowess in IT. There is an enormous gap between technical expertise on which we all rely and the inherent morality of the “hacking” community, on the one hand, and that of the wider society on the other. Life in a world of high technology both enfeebles the hold of traditional morality and makes more revelations like Manning’s and Snowden’s likely. Ironically, the violations of morality are equally present and substantive in the protected offenses of government officials: torture, rendition, illegal but sanctioned killings, intrusive surveillance of the public. Manning’s selective ethics is just one case among many of individuals and organizations choosing what part of morality they will and will not honor.
The peculiar tension between Manning’s severe sentence and the impunity of so many was underscored late in the day by news that the Department of Justice is seeking to have former President George W. Bush and his advisors immunized from prosecution for their actions surrounding the Iraq War. Manning had such a difficult pre-military life and such a problematic personality, one wonders how he ever gained top-secret clearance and especially maintained it as he reported his personal issues to superiors and exhibited aberrant, even violent behavior among his colleagues. How competent is an intelligence service that could employ a troubled talent like Pfc. Manning, who showed so many signs of instability?
So, today I feel pity—if it is politically correct to feel pity for anyone today-- for Manning, who has already suffered more blows than any young person should have borne. And I feel fear for my country which seeks to cover up so much crime committed in its name: on the battlefield, in counterterrorism and even in the law’s pursuit of criminals, as became clear recently in the Whitey Bulger case and the FBI’s unexplained and uninvestigated killing of Ibragim Todashev.
We live in confusing times, an era that includes global terrorism, digital technology, an evolving global economy and a celebrity culture. It is harder and harder for young people, whether in government service or in ordinary life, to know what is right and good. Unfortunately, our leaders and middle managers across society, in government, the media, business, finance and the church, seem unmoored from the Western moral tradition and the American tradition of civil liberties and are all too ready to hide their errors and justify them by their authority alone.
The sentencing of Bradley Manning is a tragedy not just for him, but for all Americans as well. It would be consoling for some, I suppose, particularly those in the civil liberties community, if the Manning story could be told, like that of Antigone, as a “tragic collision” between his conscience and the law. But that would be a projection. Manning is an abused victim whose motives were confused. Though he has shown character in the way he seems to have emerged from his prosecution and degrading treatment by his jailors, he is a questionable personality to elevate to the status of moral hero.
There is no cartharsis for us Americans in the fate of the other protagonist of this drama either. The mistakes of Manning’s military superiors, the unprosecuted or lightly prosecuted crimes of war he sought to expose, the cruelty of his jailors, the overreaching of those who classified trivial materials as secret, the self-protection of authorities who avoid the light—none have been brought to account by the course of “justice.” Our leaders and officials have learned nothing; the patterns of their offenses continue.
In Bradley Manning’s weighty sentence, there can be no moral cleansing for the nation, only faint hope that a more serious hero will arise to save us from the overweening American national security state.
Drew Christiansen, S. J., a visiting scholar at Boston College, is the former editor in chief of America.