In the time of Socrates, the word “martyr” did not imply one who sacrificed his life for a cause. It was simply the Greek word for “witness.” It wound its way into our contemporary language via Ecclesiastical Latin — all those early Christians whose ideas were found distasteful and were devoured by the lion of a state.
The whistleblower occupies a space between those two definitions: He is someone who has witnessed and someone who risks, by exposing what he has seen, having his liberties stifled. Our society isn’t well disposed to listening to witnesses, but is there a tipping point where the actions of a whistleblower induce a reaction while so many other witnesses have not?
Chase Madar is a New York attorney who closely followed the trial of the whistleblower Bradley Manning. His recent book, The Passion of Bradley Manning, published by OR Books and then Verso, offers insight into the trial. It also brings to mind another work, first published in 1989 and still studied in law and philosophy courses today: I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates.
Stone, the late investigative journalist, devoted 15 years to studying the trial of Socrates in effort to understand how a democratic state could condemn a man to death for his ideas. One might ask: Why waste so much time studying an ancient, inaccessible era — post-Peloponnesian War Athens watching its proto-empire crumble while a new one was emerging on the horizon? Seen in the enduring paranoia of the post-9/11 United States, however, this event in ancient Athens seems even more relevant now than when Stone’s study was first published.
For many, Socrates is considered the first secular martyr, murdered by the government for inciting people to think for themselves. Yet, in The Trial of Socrates, Stone questions whether we should accept the verdict of martyrdom and drink the Kool-Aid (or in that case, hemlock) of a morally just man. Instead he asked: Could there have been more going on?
As Stone explains, three political “earthquakes” occurred in the decade just before the trial, events which shook Athens’ “sense of internal security” and made “its citizens apprehensive.” Had these events not occurred, Stone argues, Socrates would not have been indicted in 399 B.C. Two of those earthquakes involved dictators overthrowing Athens’ democracy, plots in which Socrates’ pupils played leading roles. Although Socrates denied membership in such conspiracies, it may have been guilt by association that propelled the trial forward.
The two earthquakes of our own time collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, shaking the country’s internal security and making many American citizens more than a little apprehensive. The long-term effects were far worse: never-ending wars and the government spying on its citizens and allies alike. If the United States did not quite become Sparta, it definitely began roaming in the realm of the Roman Empire.
Why did the government pursue prosecution against Socrates? We have neither transcripts nor court records. As described in the Apology by Socrates’ disciple Plato, the government did not seem to have much of a case, yet the execution is carried out and we are tugged along in disbelief as Plato puts forth his arguments and pulls on our heartstrings. In Stone’s more balanced account, he argues that Socrates’ ideas were in direct opposition to a democratic state, yet the government had no right to persecute him for simply espousing these ideas. Stone’s point is that the freedom of expression is of utmost importance in a democracy, regardless of the moral character of the ideas being expressed.
In comparison to this historical debate, Bradley Manning’s trial is so much more immediate and accessible. Online we can have access to Manning’s personal history, his motives, his detractors and supporters. Yet the question is, essentially, the same: Has the United States overreached by court-martialing Bradley Manning?
In The Passion of Bradley Manning, Madar argues it has. He asserts that Manning should be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom “for upholding an American tradition of transparency in statecraft.” If that sounds like hyperbole, Madar notes that ex-CIA director George Tenet — who said the case for invading Iraq was a “slam dunk” — was awarded the same honor in 2004.
Stone’s biggest frustration about Socrates’ trial was that the philosopher did not mount a real defense but instead simply antagonized his interrogators. Why, Stone wonders, did Socrates not persuade the jury with words like those in the dialogue Crito: “In war and in court and everywhere, you must do whatever the state … commands, or must show her by persuasion what is really right”? Whether he wished to turn himself into a martyr and myth or, at 70 years old, he was just tired of life, Stone can only speculate.
Madar has more access into the personal motivations of his subject, and he chronicles how Bradley Manning, “a 5’2” openly gay 19-year-old with a fierce independent streak” enlisted in the military in 2007 “with a high-minded spirit of service to his country.” He grew increasingly disillusioned with both the mission and how it was being carried out. He ended up a martyr in the original sense of the term: Having witnessed many acts of atrocity, he felt it important to disseminate the information so that others could bear witness. He leaked the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs, the Guantanamo files, and the State Department Cables — acts of persuasion carrying criminal charges.
Madar outlines two further charges brought against the witness. The first was authorized under the Espionage Act of 1917 — a law, Madar notes, “never intended by its authors to be used against domestic leakers and whistleblowers.” (This original intention hasn’t stopped it from becoming, under the Obama administration, grounds for six other prosecutions.) That charge was coupled with Article 104 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the charge of aiding the enemy — a capital offense for which Manning was declared not guilty last week. Have those who began wars to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan forgotten that this system of government is built on the free flow of information?
While Manning’s sentencing is ongoing, the death penalty is now off the table. Has great moral progress, then, been achieved since the time of Socrates? That response seems to be setting the bar too low. Perhaps it was the fear that executing Manning would turn him into a martyr under the contemporary definition: one who gives up his life for a cause. But if it is the fear of a mythological martyrdom that protects Manning’s life, it doesn’t protect much else.
Just as the video “Collateral Murder” — which Manning leaked to WikiLeaks — exposed rules of engagement that do not protect Iraqi civilians or other non-combatants, Manning’s nine months of solitary confinement reveal the institutionalized violence of the U.S. prison system. More disturbingly, the government does not seem to fear that Manning will become a martyr in the case of torture. Manning had been held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for nine months. He was banned from physical exercise in his cell and had to respond every five minutes to the query, “Are you okay?” Compared to the extreme torture of waterboarding, perhaps solitary confinement seems the lesser of two evils. But evil is still evil and torture, torture. In 2011, Juan Méndez, the Special Rapporteur to the United Nations, called for an absolute ban on indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement, arguing that it causes “severe mental pain or suffering” and that it “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
Of course, as Madar argues, this torture is not an anomaly. Nor is it some type of toxic spillover from the War on Terror that will draw down as the troops pull out. Currently, thousands of incarcerated men in California prisons are on hunger strikes to protest mass indefinite solitary confinement. Journalist Shane Bauer compared the four months he spent in solitary in a prison in Iran to the conditions inside California’s prison Pelican Bay by noting that the U.S. prison cells were smaller and lacked windows. Meanwhile, the Guantanamo Bay prison design was copied, down to the smallest detail, from a maximum-security prison in Terre Haute, Ind.
If The Trial of Socrates is about freedom of expression, the trial of Bradley Manning highlights the need for democratic governments to be transparent. A 1960 Congressional Committee on Government Operations makes the point well: “Secrecy — the first refuge of incompetents — must be at a bare minimum in a democratic society … Those elected or appointed to positions of executive authority must recognize that government, in a democracy, cannot be wiser than the people.”
In watching Manning’s trial, then, we can chalk one up for freedom of information, celebrating that there are ways of uncovering the secrets of even the most powerful governments. But again, what one does with information is of the utmost importance.
Madar, in a chapter entitled “Whistleblowers and Their Public,” notes a 2006 International Social Survey Programme of national attitudes on individualism and authority. One of the survey’s questions asked: “In general, would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions on which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?” In Sweden, a country that Americans often view as being uniform and conformist, 70 percent of respondents said they would follow their conscience. In the United States, only 45 percent said the same. Is it merely the case that the U.S. punitive justice system — as opposed to the Scandinavian model that explores open prisons — makes people more afraid to act?
As Manning’s case unfolded, changes in the world occurred: the military overthrow of Morsi, the revelations of Snowden, the overturning of DOMA. The latter was a notable victory achieved in the wake of the 1960s, when the women’s rights movement (and later the gay rights movement) began articulating the slogan that the personal is political. Perhaps with Manning’s trial, as in the case of Occupy Wall Street, we are witnessing the citizens of the United States — spied upon, tortured and controlled by their own government — moving into a phase of engagement where we recognize that the political is also political.
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