As Bradley Manning Trial Begins, Press Predictably Misses the Point
This trial shouldn't be about one troubled soldier. It's about the atrocities he exposed.
Well, the Bradley Manning trial has begun, and for the most part, the government couldn't have scripted the headlines any better.
In the now-defunct Starz series Boss, there's a reporter character named "Sam Miller" played by actor Troy Garity who complains about lazy reporters who just blindly eat whatever storylines are fed to them by people in power. He called those sorts of stories Chumpbait. If the story is too easy, if you're doing a piece on a sensitive topic and factoids are not only reaching you freely, but publishing them is somehow not meeting much opposition from people up on high, then you're probably eating Chumpbait.
There's an obvious Chumpbait angle in the Bradley Manning story, and most of the mainstream press reports went with it. You can usually tell if you're running a Chumpbait piece if you find yourself writing the same article as 10,000 other hacks.
The CNN headline read as follows: "Hero or Traitor? Bradley Manning's Trial to Start Monday." NBC went with "Contrasting Portraits of Bradley Manning as Court-Martial Opens." Time magazine's Denver Nicks took this original approach in their "think" piece on Manning, "Bradley Manning and our Real Secrecy Problem":
Is he a traitor or a hero? This is the question surrounding Bradley Manning, the army private currently being court-martialed at Fort Meade for aiding the enemy by wrongfully causing defense information to published on the Internet.
The Nicks thesis turned out to be one chosen by a lot of editorialists at the Manning trial, who have decided that the "real story" in the Manning case is what this incident showed about our lax security procedures, our lack of good due diligence in vetting the folks we put in charge of our vital information.
"With so many poorly protected secrets accessible to so many people, it was only a matter of time," Nicks wrote. "We can be grateful that Bradley Manning rather than someone less charitably inclined perpetrated this leak."
Dr. Tim Stanley of the Telegraph took a similar approach, only he was even less generous than Nicks, calling Manning the "weirdo [who] tried to bring down the government," a man who was "guilty as hell" and "deserves to do time."
"Private Manning was a self-absorbed geek who should never have enjoyed the level of access that he did," Stanley wrote. He went on to argue that Manning's obvious personality defects should have disqualified him for sensitive duty, and the fact that he was even hired in the first place is the real scandal of this trial:
His personality breakdown was there for all to see – criticising US policy on Facebook, telling friends, "Bradley Manning is not a piece of equipment", and even entertaining "a very internal private struggle with his gender". He told hacker Adrian Lamo that he "listened and lip-synced to Lady Gaga's Telephone while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history." You go, girl.
All of this shit is disgraceful. It's Chumpbait.
If I was working for the Pentagon's PR department as a hired press Svengali, with my salary eating up some of the nearly five billion dollars the armed services spends annually on advertising and public relations, I would be telling my team to pump reporters over and over again with the same angle.
I would beat it into the head of every hack on this beat that the court-martial is about a troubled young man with gender identity problems, that the key issue of law here rests inside the mind of young PFC Manning, that the only important issue of fact for both a jury and the American people to decide is exactly the question in these headlines.
Is Manning a hero, or a traitor? Did he give thousands of files to Wikileaks out of a sense of justice and moral horror, or did he do it because he had interpersonal problems, because he couldn't keep his job, because he was a woman trapped in a man's body, because he was a fame-seeker, because he was lonely?
You get the press and the rest of America following that bouncing ball, and the game's over. Almost no matter what the outcome of the trial is, if you can convince the American people that this case is about mental state of a single troubled kid from Crescent, Oklahoma, then the propaganda war has been won already.
Because in reality, this case does not have anything to do with who Bradley Manning is, or even, really, what his motives were. This case is entirely about the "classified" materials Manning had access to, and whether or not they contained widespread evidence of war crimes.
This whole thing, this trial, it all comes down to one simple equation. If you can be punished for making public a crime, then the government doing the punishing is itself criminal.
Manning, by whatever means, stumbled into a massive archive of evidence of state-sponsored murder and torture, and for whatever reason, he released it. The debate we should be having is over whether as a people we approve of the acts he uncovered that were being done in our names.
Slate was one of the few outlets to approach the Manning trial in a way that made sense. Their story took the opportunity of the court-martial to remind all of us of the list of horrors Manning discovered, including (just to name a very few):
- During the Iraq War, U.S. authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape, and murder by Iraqi police and soldiers, according to thousands of field reports…
- There were 109,032 "violent deaths" recorded in Iraq between 2004 and 2009, including 66,081 civilians. Leaked records from the Afghan War separately revealed coalition troops' alleged role in killing at least 195 civilians in unreported incidents, one reportedly involving U.S. service members machine-gunning a bus, wounding or killing 15 passengers…
- In Baghdad in 2007, a U.S. Army helicopter gunned down a group of civilians, including two Reuters news staff…
This last incident was the notorious video in which our helicopter pilots lit up a group of civilians, among other things wounding two children in a van, to which the pilots blithely commented, "Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle."
Except that there had been no battle, none of the people on the street were armed, it was an attack from space for all these people knew – and oh, by the way, we were in their country, thanks to a war that history has revealed to have been a grotesque policy error.
It's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle. It's lines like this, truly horrific stuff that's evidence of a kind of sociopathic breakdown of our society, that this trial should be about. Not Manning's personal life.
Unfortunately, the American people would rather make it about Manning, because they know they were complicit in those and other murders, because they loudly brayed for war in Iraq for years, no matter how often and how loudly it was explained to them that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were not the same person.
Hacks like Stanley reassure the public that they have the right to have the results of their own moral decisions kept well hidden from them. His kind of propaganda soothes people into believing that Manning was just a freak and a weirdo, a one-off kink in the machinery, who hopefully will be thrown in the hole forever or at least for a very long time, so that we don't have to hear about any of this awful stuff again. At the very least, according to Stanley, we shouldn't have to listen to anyone call Manning a hero:
At the centre of the storm is a person who one suspects should never have been in uniform, let along enjoying access to military intelligence, who has blundered into the history books by way of a personality crisis. Incredibly, some people actually want to celebrate him as a gay icon. Who next, the Kray twins?
Wow. We're the ones machine-gunning children, and yet Manning is the one being compared to the murdering Kray twins? And Jesus, isn't being charged with the Espionage Act enough? Is Manning also being accused of not representing gay America skillfully enough on the dock?
Here's my question to Johnson: What would be the correct kind of person to have access to videos of civilian massacres? Who's the right kind of person to be let in the know about the fact that we systematically turned academics and other "suspects" over to the Iraqi military to be tortured? We want people who will, what, sit on this stuff? Apparently the idea is to hire the kind of person who will cheerfully help us keep this sort of thing hidden from ourselves.
The thing is, when it comes to things like the infamous "Collateral Murder" video, whether it's Bradley Manning or anyone else, any decent human being would have had an obligation to come forward. Presented with that material, you either become part of a campaign of torture and murder by saying nothing, or you have to make it public. Morally, there's no option.
Yes, Manning went beyond even that. One can definitely quibble about the volume of the material he released and the manner in which he released it. And I get that military secrets should, in a properly functioning society, be kept secret.
But when military secrets cross the line into atrocities, the act of keeping these secrets secret ceases to have much meaning.
The issues to be debated at this trial are massive in scope. They're about the character of the society we've all created, not the state of mind of one troubled Army private. If anyone tries to tell you anything else, he's selling you something.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Time magazine writer Denver Nicks offers the following response to this column: "Taibbi takes me to task for opening my essay by asking if Manning is a traitor or a hero. Mystifyingly, he leaves out that I follow that sentence by calling that question the least important question in Manning's case (a point about which we are apparently in agreement). By all indications, he didn't read much of my article before panning it, since my piece included nothing about 'the state of mind of one troubled Army private' and didn't even address the 'lax security procedures' or 'lack of good due diligence in vetting the folks' that are apparently the twin pillars of what he calls the 'Nicks thesis.' The piece I wrote – which I think Matt might find interesting when he finds the time to read it – agrees with him that this case is entirely about the balance between democratic accountability and secrecy in affairs of state. But over-classification – that is, the 'secrecy out of control' that I wrote about for Time – is not incidental to this question, it is the toxin that poisoned the well. Secrecy sets the foundation for the war crimes and human rights violations that so troubled Bradley Manning and outraged the world when he revealed them to us. It's the problem that has led to all the other problems, and it's so elemental that we have stopped noticing it's there."
Taibbi replies: "Fair enough."
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