The Spectacle Blog

Thoreau the Book at Him?

By on 12.21.11 | 3:26PM

I want to make this clear from the get-go: I'm here to play devil's advocate. Considering the subject at hand, some of you may read that label literally.

A lazy love of God and country is not a love at all. Yes, I believe that Bradley Manning should be punished for the crimes he has committed. I am confident his digital footprint will prove that he leaked hundred of thousands of military and diplomatic cables to the international whistle blowing syndicate WikiLeaks. But… and this is an important "but"… while what he did was illegal, it was not entirely immoral. Let's take that into consideration before we crucify Manning and those who might defend him.

With that said, I disagree with Ron Paul that this subversion makes Manning a "political hero." The critical condition of civil disobedience demands that one suffers the consequence of actions that rattle the chains of injustice. Civil disobedience strikes a hollow blow absent the appropriate penalty. On the other hand, Martin Luther King's style of non-violent resistance didn't risk the lives of American soldiers who were simply performing their duty.

Moreover, I find Manning's defense… unfortunate. Strike that. It's appalling. His sexual orientation and so-called "gender-identity crisis" raise false flags, and associate homosexuality with treason. This is inappropriate and unfair in the extreme to the thousands of gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who honorably serve this country.

I would have a great deal more respect -- and sympathy -- for Manning (and perhaps for Ron Paul's defense of the man) if he were willing to graciously suffer the consequences of his actions while maintaining that what he did, he did for a reason -- unencumbered by the flimsy excuse of forlorn femininity.

Let's face it. Whistleblowers are a necessary evil. They expose the inevitable malignity of good government gone bad. But please… exercise a little dignity and don't do the crime, if you can't pay the time.

I believe that we can respect our Armed Forces while simultaneously recognizing that civilian death and outright collusion with corrupt officials and warlords is bound to happen after a decade at war. And we don't have to like it -- in fact, it is absolutely appropriate to object vehemently to complicity and conspiracy upon realization that our government has closeted the facts of our wars abroad. Manning's alleged exposition of "Collateral Murder" and the "Afghan War Diaries" fit the mold of objectionable action. We don't like to contemplate -- let alone watch -- an American helicopter strafing Iraqi civilians or learn that our military's efforts in Afghanistan are rife with disorganization, dubious partners, and lethal slip-ups.

But that doesn't get Manning off the hook.

No, by any estimation he deserves to be punished. Consider the musings of American author, abolitionist, and leading transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau -- himself a progenitor of libertarian virtue. When H.D.T. sat down to pen "Civil Disobedience" he cast his own experience as a case study for how to function within an unjust society. Thoreau was passionately opposed to the institution of slavery. As such, he refused to pay taxes and was tossed in jail. His stay was short… but it clearly articulated his assertion that a responsible citizen's first obligation is to do what he or she believes is right and just -- not simply follow well-worn path dependence, dictated by "majority rules."

However, Pfc. Manning exceeded Thoreau's terms of moral opposition. One is never obligated to eradicate the evils of injustice; it is merely one's obligation to avoid participation in such ills. Pfc. Manning believed that he was part of an unjust war, waged by an unjust government. Given his distaste for the unwarranted aggression of the Mexican-American War, Thoreau would have likely agreed with the young man. Yet according to Thoreau -- he had an obligation to refuse to follow orders, not breech the bright red seal of classified documentation.

There's no two ways around it. The unauthorized disclosure of classified material is illegal. But is it immoral? His reaction was a human one -- you should be repulsed by the slaughter of innocents. And here's where I agree with Ron Paul. Manning's action revealed the problematic reality of war. We all have that blood on our hands. Manning made that impossible to ignore.

Thoreau was on to something when he wrote "Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice… A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed."

For Manning, the march was too steep. He must suffer the consequences of his actions. In a sense, so must we all.

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