The treatment of Bradley Manning by the United States Army has stained the honor of the American military. Manning is the soldier who leaked over two hundred thousand documents to WikiLeaks -- documents printed by The New York Times and a host of other publications whose patriotism and support of our country are unimpeachable. None of these documents gave out troop positions or any other military secrets. Private Manning's intent has been clearly documented: he feared for the future of his country and he felt desperate to correct our course.
In return, the most powerful army in the world is subjecting him to brutal treatment that qualifies as borderline torture. One can argue the extent, if any, of his guilt, or whether the editorial board of The New York Times should be brought up on criminal charges for aiding and abetting the delivery of the material Manning leaked. But torture? Sanctioned and conducted by the U.S. Army? Sleep deprivation 'a la North Korea's brainwashing techniques? Stripped and forced to stand naked in a cold cell? Kept in total isolation 23 hours a day except when he must respond to guards who check on him -- every 5 minutes? This is the "new army"? Who gave the go-ahead to impose this kind of treatment on a man who may not even have committed a crime? Who decided to raise the stakes in Manning's trial and bring capital charges against him. That's right. He is accused of aiding and abetting the enemy and for a U.S. soldier, the punishment can be death, although the army announced, in a show of benevolence, they will likely only seek life imprisonment.
Whoever it is driving this madness, they have a commanding officer. And somewhere up the line, the buck stops at the top -- at least that's the single most important, bottom-line rule of leadership. In the United States Army, the top is known as the Commander in Chief, also known as the President of the United States, Barack Obama. Which leads me to wonder:
Why is the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces silent about the torture and judicial railroading of an American soldier by his own army, an army of which President Obama is the highest ranking officer? As Ruth Marcus recently noted in The Washington Post, Obama's is becoming the "Where's Waldo" presidency. Marcus points out that there's always a rational explanation for why Obama is strangely inconspicuous during a given event but, as has been often observed, the apparent upshot is a man unwilling to articulate a moral stance, to stand for anything. Obama seems to operate under the mistaken impression that leadership is akin to facilitating a corporate retreat.
Under George Bush our nation, with liberty and justice for all, regularly used torture as a state-sanctioned extension of political, military, and judicial policy. From Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, from the kidnappings and renditions that culminated in U.S. sponsored torture-sessions throughout eastern Europe, northern Africa, and Asia, the United States became something unrecognizable, a Dr. Jekyll willingly abandoning itself to its inner, murderous Mr. Hyde.
Many of those tortured were innocent, caught up in petty feuds or an operation that swept up "the usual suspects". Some were guilty -- but of what? Who determined their guilt and did the punishment, prior to any determination of guilt, fit the crime? Tragically, the Bush administration gave up America's last pretensions to ethical distinction among nations.
Now Obama has passed his term's halfway point. Guantanamo is still open. The official language that sanctioned torture has been Obamafied -- that is, made better than it was under Bush but still not so strong as to repudiate or even definitively end torture. No member of the previous administration has been called to account for their use of torture, not only legally, but even in a public statement by the president. To paraphrase the Buffalo Springfield, "nobody's right if nobody is wrong."
So again I wonder:
If George Bush could use his authority as President and Commander in Chief to lead the United States on a descent into torture and gross violation of civil liberties, why can't President Obama use his authority to take a stand against torture and to restore liberty and law?
Does a conscientious stand against the violence of war deserve the treatment to which Private Manning has been subjected? Should anyone -- whether convicted or not, whatever their crime -- be tortured by the very institutions that exist to protect not only our individual rights, but the very ideas of liberty and law? And doesn't the army's use of torture and severe judicial proceedings debase the military authorities who vent their fury in the ugliest way possible on one of their own, and undermine the legitimacy of the military as the protective instrument of the nation?
And finally, if our Commander in Chief shrinks into the background and ignores the abuse of Bradley Manning, how can he expect to maintain his credibility as our leader, as the moral compass of our country?
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