The banality of injustice for Bradley Manning

A banner hung over Interstate 580 in Oakland, Calif. (Flickr/Bradley Manning Support Network)

A banner hung over Interstate 580 in Oakland, Calif. (Flickr/Bradley Manning Support Network)

“Apoplectic with hope” — this was how I described my state of mind as I read Alexa O’Brien’s tweets out of Fort Meade announcing the verdict in United States vs. Bradley Manning. In that first “not guilty” verdict there was an adrenaline-filled moment when I thought perhaps this story would not end as I’d resigned myself to it ending. But as details came back in rapid-fire bursts, so too did the guilty verdicts, and the instantaneous analyses thereof, and the “breaking news” alerts on my phone, and the story of Bradley Manning’s trial resumed its sadly familiar narrative.

The moment of a judicial verdict is, in a news cycle, a climax in the narrative. For a little while, in its aftermath, it’s unpacked in a number of ways: the ruling itself is unpacked by legal experts, the press coverage is unpacked by media experts. Sometimes, the resonance of a ruling is unpacked in the streets by the public, in elation or outrage.

Courtrooms are not spaces for outrage or elation. In a court of law, political issues and emotionally charged stories are stripped of their rancor and turned into syntax. Outrage becomes something forensic, clinical, drawn out over an interminable period of time. On the occasions I’ve been in a courtroom I sometimes wonder if this is actually what people mean when they cry out on the streets that what they want is “justice” and that they want it now. Perhaps they meant they wanted a highly technical reinterpretation of events and that they wanted it to be rescheduled, repeatedly.

I’d only been able to attend one day of Manning’s trial. The disparity between the issues within the documents Manning released (such as government accountability and due process for detainees) and those at hand in court (definitions of command-line tools, whether or not Bradley Manning may have read questionable tweets by WikiLeaks) was stark. I walked away from it with the belief that the fact Manning was being tried in a military court at all meant in one way that he’d already lost. The release of classified material by Manning was a challenge to the legitimacy of institutions all over the world that maintain power by brute force and secrecy. And yet the very institution at the heart of this critique, the one with everything to lose, is the one that gets to decide if his trial is fair and impartial. Then agan, who could possibly provide a fair and impartial analysis of Manning’s actions, given the vastness of the data released and its international reach?

We accept the idea of the judicial process — of government processes in general — as tedious and forensic as a necessary inevitability. If the process is dispassionate, then, the theory goes, it is fair. But within that tedium, within semantics and syntax, lies more insidious logic that allows abuse of power to go unchecked. For instance, it’s this procedural logic that allows Internet access for the press at Fort Meade to be severely limited — it’s not a Horrible Government Conspiracy, it’s the furloughed Comcast contractors (by the same system that also furloughs FOIA officers, which prevents release of documents in the public interest). There’s no one person to blame for this, per se, but the government certainly benefits if the trial remains difficult to access because of information logjams. The familiar media narrative around a court case rarely bothers to ask whether the court or the government itself is part of the problem — it may critique a judge, it may critique a decision, but rarely is the foundation brought into question.

Despite my lack of faith in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, in the days following attending the trial I desperately wanted to be back at Fort Meade. I wanted to be among the people who have given not just this past summer but entire years of their lives to Manning’s case. I wanted to drive Fort Meade’s bizarre suburban landscape, home to the NSA and more seemingly benign things like a movie theater showing The Internship. I wanted to have my bag searched by bored-looking young men in an air-conditioned trailer. I wanted to cross paths in the base PX with contractors and soldiers who couldn’t care less about the court martial. I wanted to face Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil straight in the eye and tell its story, join the chorus of people who have been telling its story again and again until maybe the story took hold, and as a public we’d realize what was happening and we’d stop it.

Col. Denise Lind had prohibited both prosecution and defense from submitting evidence about the actual harm or impact of Manning’s leaks and from considering his motives during the trial. It’s now, during the sentencing phase, that motives and impact will be considered in court. Perhaps now the image of impartiality can be pierced. Perhaps I’ll be as surprised as I was upon seeing the first “not guilty” verdict, and the court will acknowledge that the world has changed since WikiLeaks published Manning’s documents, and that the government and military must change accordingly.

In all likelihood, United States vs. Bradley Manning will continue to serve as a smokescreen for justice and, worse, establish greater precedent for practices that have stifled and will continue to harm journalists, whistleblowers, activists and the American public. Because meanwhile, Fort Meade will continue to function. The construction at Fort Meade of new NSA buildings will be finished, and while congressional hearings about the NSA’s actions continue so too will its expansion. The Comcast contractors and the FOIA officers will continue to be furloughed, and tedium will continue to be the preferred tactic of the U.S. government for publicly cracking down on dissent.

And I will keep trying to tell this story until it takes. I went to Fort Meade to bear witness and because I felt a responsibility to Manning for being someone who had taken a risk greater than I could ever imagine. After the experience I feel an even greater responsibility to support others taking such risks (many of whom acted after, and were inspired by, Manning), and to take risks myself. In the face of procedural banality from a state desperately trying to maintain a legitimacy it lost a long time ago I am, and continue to be, apoplectic with hope.

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