The sentencing of Pfc. Bradley Manning is expected to be announced this week, and in response, online debate over WikiLeaks and Manning's actions have escalated in recent days. In fact, according to Google Trends, searches related to Manning are higher now than ever before, include the week he was arrested.
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Bradley Manning supporter at a protest against NSA surveillance by Fibonacci Blue
Through the lens of this polarizing topic, a great deal about the United States is exposed and we can learn a great deal about ourselves by stepping away from emotions of the moment, and looking at the debate itself.
Polls differ on the percentage of Americans who support Manning. Rusmussen Reports has done polls that show that the country is split roughly 50/50. Other polls vary but generally show Manning supporters to be between 30 and 50 percent of the US population. Concrete polling outside the United States is difficult to find, but Manning is generally more popular abroad than at home and according to Nathan Fuller, of the Support Bradley Manning network, half of the events in support of the whistleblower organized around his 1000th day in prison, took place outside the USA.
Perhaps more telling than the number of rallies or polling results, are the contents of the countless comment threads on this topic. Through these, we can see people's real thoughts, prior to stuffing them into simplistic categories.
When exploring the territory of Bradley Manning threads the first thing that pops out is how contentious the topic is. One criticism some thinkers have had of the internet from its inception is that it allows people to avoid those who disagree with them, thereby promoting the fracturing of our culture into isolated digital subcultures. Manning comment boards do not reflect this trend. Most discussions are happening in the comment sections of major news articles that attract a broad audience. For this reason, these threads are seething with fiery debate.
A Typical example of the debate:
Commenter 1: "This is ridiculous. He's a hero. He's a whistleblower. They couldn't even prove ONE person that was hurt by what he revealed. Instead, we found out that our government has been violating international law. Ugh.
Commenter 2: He is a traitor who should be shot. Do you have any idea how many documents her released without any concern for the unintended results of his actions?
Commenter 1: I am sure you enjoyed watching those reporters die."
Perhaps the most important trend to take note of in all of the coverage and conversation since WikiLeaks gained notoriety in 2011, is that nearly all of the activity centers around the actions of those involved in the leaks themselves, especially Manning and Julian Assange. There has also been a lot of attention put on the actions of the state to react to the leaks, as well as interest in the economic blockade of WikiLeaks carried out by major banks and the retaliation against the banks by Anonymous.
What have gained far less attention are the actual contents of Manning's leaks. Both supporters and nonsupports have been so enthralled with the drama of the leaks that their contents have been largely ignored. Perhaps this is because the contents of the diplomatic cables, while scandalous in many respects, weren't particularly surprising to the American people. By and large, the American press hasn't even bothered to report the contents of the leaks. Another problem is that the sheer size of the leaked material is so vast that debating it all has been impossible.
The one exception is the footage of soldiers shooting unarmed journalists and innocent civilians from a helicopter while engaging insurgents. Commenters have focused in on this dramatic video as a microcosm of the leaks (some commenters even seem unaware of the other material.)
Manning's defense has focused on portraying the soldier as an idealistic, troubled young man who wasn't given adequate social support, or psychological help. Their argument has remained that he is a good person, who under incredible stress, made a terrible mistake. Neither supporters nor nonsupporters have displayed any interest in this categorization. Not even the Bradley Manning Support Network, the closest thing to an official site for Manning's defense, has taken this point of view in its articles.
There are really only two characterizations of Bradley Manning in the public. The first is that he's a traitor. Manning's detractors focus on the military oaths he broke; the possibility of his actions endangering American soldiers; and his betrayal of the United States and its interests.
"Enough of these "whistleblowers" who put our lives, country, and liberty at risk by divulging US security secrets to our enemies. Their motivations are neither good nor naive, they serve only to aid our enemies in obtaining their goals, including focusing attention away from their agenda while we debate the finer points of "whistleblowing." This isn't some greedy corporation that is putting innocent people at risk with their policies, this is our country, the UNITED STATES, to which WE look for OUR security, OUR livelihood, OUR opportunities and that of OUR CHILDREN. God, family and country, are the three things that matter most. Anyone who harms one of these harms me."
Supports on the other hand portray him as a hero who, moved by the rampant injustice all around him in the military and intelligence community, risked his future to expose what he knew to the world.
"Private Manning has nothing to apologize for. The Nuremberg trials, which the U.S. prosecuted, with others, makes very clear that one must stand against authority when authority is wrong. Many Germans were hung for not following this dictum. Of course, all our elites do these days is issue orders that any sensible person would disobey, but woe the consequences. To me, Private Manning is one of our American heroes."
The heart of the debate has little to do with Manning, WikiLeaks, or even the content of the leaks. It's about how we view American international policy, particularly the military.
There is a large proportion of Americans who feel that the security community serves the American people, and does so well. Do they make moral compromises? Of course. But that's the cost of doing a good job. These folks will point out that Americans, despite some limitations, enjoy a high level of freedom and economic prosperity. Often these people show little respect for international law because international law threatens American liberty and sovereignty. Hence, if the state department occasionally breaks international law behind closed doors, it is best to simply keep it behind closed doors.
Supporters of Manning see the security community not primarily as the defender of American freedom, but as a force of global repression that is fundamentally morally bankrupt. Given their opinion of the security community, these folks naturally see Manning as a great hero.
At the end of the day, perhaps it is Bradley Manning's defense that has it right. The young humanist made one naive mistake: he thought the trove of top secret information would change hearts and minds. In fact, the information has simply ramped up all of the old debates. This doesn't mean the leaks haven't been significant, on the contrary, it has been suggested that they helped light the fire under the numerous protest movements of the last three years. But the shift is more in terms of intensifying people's beliefs than actually changing them.