Bradley Manning and an American Tragedy

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.

Advertisement

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mark Burke
4 years 3 months ago
Bradley Manning in no longer "Bradley," but "Chelsea." http://www.today.com/news/bradley-manning-i-want-live-woman-6C10974915
Chris Sullivan
4 years 3 months ago
The imprisonment of Bradley Manning is an outrage. The intent would appear to be clear - to send a very strong warning message to anyone who might dare cross the national security state and expose unethical military and security conduct. This creates a public climate of fear and intimidation which undermines our democratic freedoms. Bradley Manning should be pardoned and set free immediately. God Bless
Vince Killoran
4 years 3 months ago
I wasn't clear to which "selective ethics" Fr. Christiansen refers.
denis martin
3 years 10 months ago
Individuals looking to apply as physical therapists need to have a good physical therapist resume with them. A good resume introduces the applicant to the employer and therefore needs to be impressive. It needs to contain all the strengths and skills the applicant has which can be useful in the job, but should not be too lengthy. A good resume can be read in as short as five minutes and give the employer a complete picture of the applicant’s skills at one glance. Do’s and Don’ts inWriting a Resume There are things every applicant needs to note when making a resume. When it comes to writing a resume, short but concise lines of information are ideal. Here are more things an applicant needs to do and not to do when writing a resume for a physical therapist position.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Homeless people are seen in Washington June 22. Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chair of the U.S. bishops' domestic policy committee, released a statement Nov. 17 proclaiming that the House of Representatives "ignored impacts to the poor and families" in passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act the previous day. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
The United States is thwarting the advancement of millions of its citizens, a UN rapporteur says.
Kevin ClarkeDecember 16, 2017
Why not tax individuals for what they take out of society instead of what they contribute?
Paul D. McNelis, S.J.December 15, 2017
Pope Francis will renew the mandate of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors for another three years, informed sources told America this week.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 15, 2017
Worshippers recite the Lord's Prayer during Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Mineola, N.Y., on Oct. 13. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)
Making ancient Scripture sensible in contemporary languages will always prove a hazard-heavy challenge.
Kevin ClarkeDecember 15, 2017