Rally in support of Bradley Manning on August 8, 2010, in Quantico, Virginia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
With the sentencing of Private Manning the level of protest from his supporters has grown. Calls for his pardon have been raised up. The desire to see the martyr for the cause of transparency lifted from imprisonment is a topic for conversation all over the world – face to face and via discussion groups on the web. Not to say that this is a bad thing, per se. People should talk. People should hold opinions and they need not conform to a common agreement.
Yet, in opposition, there comes a point of realism. There are facts in any matter that must be recognised. For example, Bradley Manning committed crimes. There is no doubt of this. Yet, there are many who complain Manning did nothing wrong as the data revealed wrong doing and the moral failure of the US as recorded by the data. They question how someone might be punished for revealing ‘wrongs’.
They see the Manning as having committed a moral ‘right’ – an act of goodness intended to uplift and free minds so that they might raise voices against the ill-conceived notions of the State. How can the law be used to undermine a moral good? It is a moral ‘wrong’ they say that Manning should be punished for revealing government illegality.
Let us tarry a while over this notion of moral rightness. Facts get in the way of this notion. The ‘idea’ of unveiling illegality is rightly a positive one; it is an idea that inspires and motivates people to voice their discontent with perceived government intrusion upon freedoms and shout at their televisions: ‘Manning must be freed!’ It encourages the voices of the impassioned and ardent supporters of freedom of speech to laud Manning for his honesty and courage. From behind steaming mugs of imported coffee they pronounce Edward Snowden, Manning’s fugitive compatriot, a hero and comment on how he has ‘risked his life’ to expose the weakness of democracy and the wrongs of the NSA, FISA, and the US in general. In these declarations however there is a selective logic, a commitment to only a part of the freedoms and securities enjoyed by these endorsers of Manning and Snowden. Yes, by all means do the moral thing, and damn the law for not seeing it as moral! Judge Manning for what he showed – not what he did! Snowden – a Robin Hood of the data must be free movement.
One cannot easily call Manning a ‘moral’ man. Of course this depends upon whose morals one is using. He is ‘gender confused’ according to some – a euphemism for Homosexual. Whose morals are permissive of that life choice? Whose are permissive? He stole – a fact by the way – a moral wrong – in some eyes? Not according to his supporters. As they view the data he stole as evidence of illegality, stealing it was morally right. There are however many different views of the ‘morals’ of Private Manning and his actions. In fact, if the young Mr Manning were to be sat in a room with a hundred of his fellow citizens, each would pronounce upon him different moral judgements. He would be loved, hated, condemned, praised, and ignored all within the space of his visit. In fact, there is but one view, one solitary bastion where he is consistently and likely to be fairly treated – within the law.
Blessedly free from ambiguity of public morals the law speaks to Manning with one voice. The law does not care about his skin, his gender preference or predilection, partiality or predisposition. It cares not one jot if he is happy or sad about the state of the nation, the voracity of US democracy, or the colour of the sky. The law cares about compliance – has Bradley Manning complied with the laws of the land. He has not. He has rightly been found guilty.
Moral positions stand to provide guidance in behaviour where the law has no province, due mostly to the trivial nature of the crime. We don’t lie, in broad stokes, and while lying is against the law – lying to mum about eating our vegetables is unlikely to get you jail time. Morally, to lie is wrong, thus, the pangs of guilt felt after telling a fib. Yes, morals are the root of law – yet they are wisely divorced from its practice. Thou shalt not kill – a rather well known moral law has been wisely and carefully granulated, less the notion of an ‘eye for an eye’, another moral law, rule and circumstance is forgotten when adjudicating innocence, punishing those caught in defence of their person with those who have premeditated a murder.
This notion of the separation between the law and the moral, the church and the state, the philosophy and the legal system is wisely established to prevent the guilty from being too cruelly punished, or the innocent from being convicted on a personal objection to one person’s conduct where another might condone the same behaviour.
Manning and Snowden have their supporters – those who fail to see that wrong will occur and yes, while it is right to expose it and to confront it, it can never be addressed by the commission of crimes. They demand Manning’s freedom as he revealed law breaking – a good, a truism. In actuality he didn’t. Rather, he reissued known data on US failures to properly engage targets, known illegality at Abu Graib, and significant diplomatic data that created embarrassment and difficulty for US foreign diplomats – all well known before Manning’s theft. While the potential for causing serious harm was there in his purportedly moral act, fortunately no harm is known to have occurred. Manning’s sentence is reflective of this and the clear naivety he demonstrated in acting as he did. While 35 years is a long time, the full weight of the law would have burdened him with much more time.
Snowden who ran directly into the arms of foreign intelligence services is unlikely to receive such compassion – though it is also unlikely he will ever set foot on US soil again. Praised by the same people who lauded Manning, he is a victim. He did ‘the moral thing’.
Snowden’s motivation seems like bad law and dubious oversight – all correctable certainly – but warranting a global cat and mouse game? Not likely. Certainly it wasn’t ‘moral’, what the NSA was doing. It felt wrong. Governments shouldn’t ‘spy’ on their own people or their allies. Perhaps so – but, did Snowden need to hack into government data in defiance of the terms of his security clearance and law and give that data to Russia and China to prove his point? No, he didn’t. However, there will be many who will voice their opinions and shout at their TVs to show their support for Edward Snowden and the ‘rightness’ of his ‘cause’. They will write letters and make signs. They will stand in opposition to whatever it is that sparked their moral outrage – and should the law ever get hold of Snowden they will shout more and more. This helpful noise will give the impression that Snowden is a ‘moral’ man and not a traitor and thief. It will attempt to cast doubt on the rightness and need for protections and security albeit in managed proportions. This noise will continue, and when and if the case comes to trial, the defense team will point to the outrage of these vocal supporters – the ‘moral’ public – these useful idiots.