by Frank Brenner
Sometimes the impressions of a day jostle up against each other, and the friction is enough to give off some sparks of insight. This year's May Day came etched in an irony that was particularly acrid. I happened to be reading, in the hours before the Big Announcement from the White House, the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, and in the back pages I came across the following letter to the editor:
Bradley Manning is the soldier charged with leaking US government documents to WikiLeaks. He is currently detained under degrading and inhumane conditions that are illegal and immoral.
For nine months, Manning has been confined to his cell for twenty-three hours a day. During his one remaining hour, he can walk in circles in another room, with no other prisoners present. He is not allowed to doze off or relax during the day, but must answer the question “Are you OK?” every time he turns his back to the cell door or covers his head with a blanket so that the guards cannot see his face. During the past week he was forced to sleep naked and stand naked for inspection in front of his cell, and for the indefinite future must remove his clothes and wear a “smock” under claims of risk to himself that he disputes.
The sum of the treatment that has been widely reported is a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and the Fifth Amendment's guarantee against punishment without trial. If continued, it may well amount to a violation of the criminal statute again torture, defined as, among other things, “the administration or application ... of ... procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality.”
Private Manning has been designated as an appropriate subject for both Maximum Security and Prevention of Injury (POI) detention. But he asserts that his administrative reports consistently describe him as a well-behaved prisoner who does not fit the requirements for Maximum Security detention. The Brig psychiatrist began recommending his removal from Prevention of Injury months ago. These claims have not been publicly contested. In an Orwellian twist, the spokesman for the brig commander refused to explain the forced nudity “because to discuss the details would be a violation of Manning’s privacy.”
The Administration has provided no evidence that Manning’s treatment reflects a concern for his own safety or that of other inmates. Unless and until it does so, there is only one reasonable inference: this pattern of degrading treatment aims either to deter future whistleblowers, or to force Manning to implicate Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in a conspiracy, or both.
If Manning is guilty of a crime, let him be tried, convicted, and punished according to law. But his treatment must be consistent with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There is no excuse for his degrading and inhumane pre-trial punishment. As the State Department’s PJ Crowly put it recently, it is “counterproductive and stupid.” And yet Crowley has now been forced to resign for speaking the plain truth.
The Wikileaks disclosures have touched every corner of the world. Now the whole world watches America and observes what it does; not what it says.
President Obama was once a professor of constitutional law, and entered the national stage as an eloquent moral leader. The question now, however, is whether his conduct as Commander in Chief meets fundamental standards of decency. He should not merely assert that Manning’s confinement is “appropriate and meet[s] our basic standards,” as he did recently. He should require the Pentagon publicly to document the grounds for its extraordinary actions --and immediately end those which cannot withstand the light of day.The letter was the text of a petition that had been signed by a few hundred academics. Manning's predicament wasn't news to me but some of the specifics were, particularly his being reduced to naked helplessness and the macabre use of what is normally an expression of humane concern – Are you OK? – as an endless echo chamber of torture. Those details were still on my mind when, late that night, I happened to turn on the television and came across the “eloquent moral leader” announcing a killing and claiming it as a crowning achievement of his presidency.
Every president, at least in my memory, has been a second-rate actor whose 'image' is a matter of striking poses rather than conveying genuine human feeling. This is, of course, why Ronald Reagan was such a success at the job. The forte of the face on the tv screen is earnestness and today the pose comes accented with resolve: it celebrates a murder with solemn dignity, thereby demonstrating eloquent moral leadership. Like the acting, the writing is second-rate, a text of repetitions, an echo chamber of its own: “I directed ... I was briefed ... I met repeatedly ... I determined”; “bring him to justice ... justice has been done ... pursuit of justice ... justice for all.” I did this killing and this killing is justice – that is the real message minus the pose. Are you OK? Are you OK? Are you OK? Are you OK?
Crowds came to the White House and to Ground Zero in New York to celebrate. These people didn't have to pose, they didn't have to be eloquent moral leaders. But they got the message loud and clear and reacted with their own echo chamber: USA!USA!USA! USA! Some chanted Yes, We Can! Yes, We Can!, at long last giving that slogan real meaning. These was no question as to how these people would have answered the question, Are you OK?
Alas, the next day there were recriminations: the images on tv looked too much like cheering on a murder, too uncomfortably like a lynch mob. But the eloquent moral leader wasn't put off: he declared that the crowds expressed the true spirit of America. And other eloquent moral leaders weighed in – the Pope, the Dalai Lama: while their religions don't condone killing (actually not true in the case of Catholicism), still some murders are justified. But some common folk with less exalted standards of morality took a different view: a woman who lost her daughter in 9/11 told an interviewer, “In our house we don't celebrate death.”
But these discordant voices did little to detract from the triumph of the moment. The eloquent moral leader had proved himself a true warrior, a non-wimp. Reporters marveled at how, right after giving the OK for the killing operation to go ahead, the eloquent moral leader donned a tuxedo and delivered a comedy speech to a gathering of Washington reporters and Hollywood celebs. His demeanor did not betray a trace of anxiety or concern; he delivered his punchlines with aplomb and basked in the attention of the glittering crowd. The next night, after the announcement of the killing, the juxtaposition of these events would strike some observers as being a bit odd.
“If we could have seen everything unfolding in real time,” wrote one pundit in The New York Times,” it would have had the same dramatic effect as the intercutting in the president's favorite movie, 'The Godfather,' when Michael Corleone calmly acts as godfather to his nephew's baptism at church, even as his lieutenants carry out the gory hits he has ordered of rival mobsters.” Wow! The leading newspaper in the country comparing the president to a Mafia boss! Could it be that the eloquent moral leader had betrayed a major streak of callous brutality? Actually, so far as the Times pundit was concerned, just the opposite was true: this ability to shift seamlessly from wisecracks to killing demonstrated the mark of a leader of “muscular purpose.” Reaching for another film allusion, the piece was titled “Cool Hand Barack.”
On this MayDay 2011:
The eloquent moral leader is OK.
The CIA is OK.
Wall Street is OK.
The DemocraticRepublican Party is OK.
The New York Times is OK.
Are you OK?