We all knew that the conviction of Bradley Manning was a fait accompli before the trial began, and the government’s petty and vindictive rejection of his plea offer only certified that the amoral keepers of order, beginning with the President himself, considered this sinful spectacle of vengeful formality a necessary bit of instruction, pour décourager les autres. I use the word sinful advisedly. The fact that the government went through with the trial indicates how truly despicable the powerful become when they’ve been embarrassed, how small they are, and how distant from what is good.
You know, I joined Twitter because I wrote a novel and it seemed wise to weasel my way into a few more online forums in anticipation of its publication, but I’ve been gratified to make some interesting new friends and acquaintances, several of whom are devout Christians. I’m not religious in any practical sense of the word, but I’ve always been conservative by temperament, however radical my politics, and although I’m no more inclined to believe that Yahweh is real than I ever was, I do find that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become both more austere in my moral judgments and more communitarian in my social thinking, habits I certainly associate with the Judaism of my youth, however wishwashy and Reform it may have been. I don’t know, this Shabbat is my brother’s Yahrtzeit, and I always get sentimental. Nevertheless, even if I don’t believe in God and feel no affinity for the concept of a god, then I do believe, abidingly, that there is such a thing as justice, and that justice is more than some dull codex of laws, fairly and blindly applied. There should be room for forgiveness, tolerance, and exigence, and when we afflict the weak and the powerless with our harshest punishments, we traduce justice and sully ourselves. The desire to punish, the eagerness to see punishment, reveals, I think, a human soul, or being, or whatever you want to call it, that secretly fears this very outcome for itself—trial, judgment, and punishment for its sins.
The government tortured Bradley Manning; they tried, literally, to drive him mad, likely in the belief that he would then give up some other participant in a concocted conspiracy. They later accused him of vanity, but is there anything more vain than powerful, paranoid men imagining their own secret persecution? Still, I want to resist the urge to let my heart break for him, because I think that he’s stronger and braver than me; had I been subjected to what he endured, I would not have endured. I doubt I’d have done what he did to draw the vicious ire of the Executive and the military to begin with, even if I’d had the opportunity. Fear would have stopped me, or malaise, or plain indifference. So it seems indulgent to offer him my pity, and instead I would offer my anger.
Manning is a prisoner of politics and conscience. As I sit on my designer (if dog-stained) couch in my pretty little row house in my lovely city wondering how much more furniture or art my ex will want to take as we dissolve the last eight years of life together, it feels vain to have any opinion, to share any sentiment at all. It feels decadent. But my god, we were twenty-three when we met! We were trawling through Pittsburgh bars and going to museum parties. We were the same age as Manning when they arrested him. And I believe that what is really decadent is to cast him as some speechless other, with whose experience and suffering I can feel no connection. I would have hit on Bradley Manning if I’d met him in a bar when I was twenty-three. I can’t help but feel. Another political little queer. The difference, of course, is that he was in the right place, or the wrong place, and he was more formidable than me.
What does the Manning case say? I won’t say mean, because what does anything mean? It says that our rulers are small and vengeful and afraid. The language of security and peril that’s come to cloak every official announcement is decadent. The hounding pursuit of those who undermine and question the imperatives of security and the reality of the peril is decadent. The hollow liturgy of a show trial is decadent. I’ve never been much of a nationalist, never felt especially inspired by America, always known that we are a nation like any other, built on bones and fairy tales as much as anything else, but I do appreciate the power of myth to model society, and this lousy episode really makes you wonder, what is our national myth? What does America have to offer itself anymore? We’ve become very adept at hurting people for nothing. I wonder: is that all?