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A "Free Bradley Manning" button.
Although we had to swelter in the Maryland sun on Saturday, I found the pre-trial rally at Ft. Meade to support Bradley Manning particularly spirit-filled. It seemed there was an unspoken but widely shared consciousness that Manning is as much Biblical prophet as Army private.
I think Manning can be seen as a classic prophet in the Abrahamic tradition. Such prophets take risks to expose injustice and challenge the rest of us to do the same. They also are a very large pain to those who oppress -- and a pain, as well, to those of us who would prefer not to have to bother about such things.
What was Isaiah trying to say by his nakedness? Biblical scholars conclude that he sought a vivid way to demonstrate to the Israelites that, if their oppressive practices did not stop they too would be "naked and barefoot, their buttocks shamefully exposed." (Isa. 20:2-4) Or, more simply: It is not my nakedness that is shameful. It is yours -- those of you who have stripped yourselves of the vision with which you were blessed, a vision of justice and shalom.
Can we borrow Isaiah's eyesight to see and acknowledge that the abuse uncovered and revealed by Bradley Manning -- including the torture and slaughter of Iraqi civilians -- exposes the buttocks of us Americans? (And I refer not simply to those in the chain of command, but the rest of us too. Are you starting to feel a draft on your derriere?)
In suggesting we all need to examine our consciences, I take my cue from a more recent prophet in the tradition of Isaiah, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who insisted that wherever injustice takes place, "few are guilty, but all are responsible." Rabbi Heschel drove home the point, adding that, "indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself."
Responsible If Unaware
Those of us Americans who have seen and heard the U.S. Army Apache helicopter gun-barrel video showing the killing of a dozen civilians (including two Reuters journalists) in Baghdad on July 12, 2007, (during President George W. Bush's much-heralded "troop surge") can appreciate how that video, which has been given the apt title "Collateral Murder," leaves our buttocks "shamefully exposed."
The premier German TV program Panorama, unlike its American counterparts, replayed the most salient parts of the gun-barrel footage, but also put context around the incident in a short 60 Minutes-type segment. Those of us who had some role in the German version begged the producers of Panorama to "undub" the program. They acknowledged the need, made an exception to their corporate policy against "undubbing," and what emerged is a 12-minute English version titled "Shooters Walk Free, Whistleblower Jailed."
Lacking any real competition, the 12-minute English version is, in my view, the most straightforward depiction of what happened, including the war crime of murdering the "Good Samaritan," who stopped to help one of the wounded.
War crime? Yes, war crime. "Justifying" the killing of a dozen people, including two journalists, based on the claim that a camera was mistaken for a gun and that therefore the killing was in keeping with the "Rules of Engagement," as Defense Secretary Robert Gates claimed at the time, is already a stretch. But killing someone trying to help the wounded stretches that "justification" well beyond the breaking point. It is a war crime.
As Bradley Manning commented later, "The most alarming aspect of the video to me, however, was the seemly delightful bloodlust they [the Apache helicopter shooters] appeared to have."
What Moved Manning?
As I see it, Manning's motivation was not necessarily religious, but rather a profoundly human reaction of the kind described in the Cain and Abel story in Genesis. I think most of us understand the imperative to be our brother's keeper, but I do find the Genesis story helpful in sorting through these thorny issues.
What we need to bear in mind is that Genesis is not the first book of the Bible's Old Testament that was written; it is one of the last. It was composed during and after the Babylonian captivity (587 to 538 B.C.E.) as a counter-story and repudiation of Babylon's religion of empire.
That kind of "religion" was based largely on the concept of redemptive violence as the way to defeat evil and stave off chaos until the next time violence would be seen as unavoidably necessary. (How fortunate that we 21st Century sophisticates have long since risen above that primitive concept!)
Counter-stories are often tools designed to repair the damage inflicted on people by abusive power systems. That's what Genesis was all about. The Israelites desperately needed to teach their children a narrative that would negate the influence of the violence-prone, opulent Babylon -- their home for half a century. (Have any of you noticed how seductive the redemptive violence ethos can be, even -- or especially -- in nations that claim "city-on-the-hill status?")