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The Embarrassing Debate Over Bradley Manning

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Is it just me, or does everyone in America seem to lose their damn mind at the mention of Bradley Manning? I'm never entirely certain if the person I'm talking to will want to put his face on the $1 bill or hang his corpse on the White House gates as a warning to others, but I can almost always be certain that nothing in between will satisfy them.

The particulars of the case come second to one's declaration that he or she personally is either patriot or revolutionary, as defined by his or her position on Manning's fate. Yesterday, the New York Times observed that:

There was a sharp drop from Monday in the presence of news organizations and protesters at the [Manning] trial, which opened Monday at this military base near Baltimore, as it shifted from the drama of the opening statements toward chain-of-custody issues and other evidentiary matters.

We just came for the circus. Our minds are already made up, so why bother with little things like evidence?

The right, always on the hunt for someone who doesn't love the United States of Jaysus enough, has found the perfect villain in Manning. He was a bad soldier. He helped terrorists. He's a gay. (Probably trans, but it's all the same here in the good-ol' USJ!) The rallying cry is that Manning has been put to trial and shamefully abused because he put lives in danger, even if there is scant, if any, evidence to support this claim.

Keep in mind that Manning is accused of passing information that was readily available to a Private First Class to a media outlet. That is the sum of his crimes. WikiLeaks, after all, is not al Qaeda. They have idiots, not tanks. Manning, for his part, is hardly a double agent.

More troubling is the fact that some -- though not much -- of the material Manning leaked did serve the public interest. The freedom to publish that kind of material is fundamental to any democracy, not an attack on it. It is very disturbing that this has been soundly rejected as any possible defense in a military trial. People surrender certain rights when they enlist, of course, and a Private First Class has no right to decide to de-classify hundreds of documents on a whim. But roping off even reasonable disclosures of wrongdoing seems rather dangerous, and should cause concern for anybody.

It is especially rich that so many who want Manning executed for passing lowest-level state secrets to an irresponsible media outlet still fawn over a man who illegally sold over 2,500 TOW missiles, 18 Hawk missiles and more than 240 parts to build more Hawk missiles to a nation that celebrates its ongoing conflict with the United States with a national holiday. There's no nice way to put it: if you think that Bradley Manning aided the enemy but Ronald Reagan did not, you're either dangerously uninformed or you've lost your fool mind.

For its part, a vocal segment of the left (perpetually starved for idols,) has decided to temporarily bestow its oft-misplaced veneration upon Manning. Many declare him a hero who bravely risked life and liberty to expose... a war... that people didn't know was happening? And some other stuff? That... changed everything?

The more-radical-than-thou wing of the progressive movement is still falling all over itself trying to outdo one another in shows of support for Manning and his courageous disclosure. I went to visit him in jail! I started a fund for her gender re-assignment! I had every word of every page of every document leaked tattooed onto my body! It's painfully embarrassing to watch.

They try to rationalize the lovefest by heralding Manning's WikiLeaks "revelations," in pieces that invariably amount to either catalogs of ignorance or blatant attempts to mislead. A couple of "revelations" from Slate's most recent stab: "In Baghdad in 2007, a U.S. Army helicopter gunned down a group of civilians, including two Reuters news staff." Terrible, truly, but we had known about that for three years prior to Manning's leak. We had also known that, "U.S. special operations forces were conducting offensive operations inside Pakistan despite sustained public denials and statements to the contrary by U.S. officials," for some time. But who could resist an opportunity to decry the practice that allowed us to kill Osama bin Laden! And anyone who finds it at all surprising that, "In apparent violation of a 1946 U.N. convention, Washington initiated a spying campaign in 2009 that targeted the leadership of the U.N.," is just adorably naive.

Manning didn't identify a misdoing and blow a whistle, you see. He got angry and acted out. After all, there were any number of people inside and outside his chain of command he could have reported any specific wrong to, but Manning chose not to. If he had sent, for example, the documents proving UN spying to major newspapers, they would have been published. That isn't what he did. This fog of "revelations" that never were serves only to rationalize his apotheosis to the true believers, not to justify a massive leak of mostly unrelated classified data.

Or the sharing of that data with an utterly reprehensible organization. Manning didn't choose to give the documents to The Washington Post, or Mother Jones, or even al Jazeera, but to this guy:

"Julian was very reluctant to delete those names [of Afghan informants], to redact them." David Leigh of the Guardian newspaper tells FRONTLINE of meetings he attended with Assange in the run-up to publication of the war logs. "And we said: 'Julian, we've got to do something about these redactions. We really have got to.' And he said: 'These people were collaborators, informants. They deserve to die.' And a silence fell around the table."

And when the U.S. government moved against WikiLeaks after the diplomatic cable leaks (which ingeniously protested war by making it more difficult for diplomats to work with each other,) the site retaliated by publishing a list of sites deemed vital to public safety around the globe. The go-to list of potential terror targets included vaccine and insulin production facilities, communication centers, important bridges, pipelines and undersea cables. In short, one would have to ignore some very harsh realities to claim that WikiLeaks has never intentionally aided terrorists simply to spite or threaten governments, including that of the United States.

Let's face it: WikiLeaks' involvement has screwed Manning in a big, big way. But did he lack the wherewithal to see it coming? Or was it exactly the kind of shitstorm that he wanted to see? That's what the most serious charges in this case hinge on. Even Manning probably couldn't answer that question honestly.

The known facts about Manning paint the private not as a calculating villain or heroic whistleblower, but as an angry kid lashing out. The right's terrorist mastermind and the left's darling hero was a disturbed kid who could barely function in day-to-day life. Already prone to emotional outbursts, Manning was in a downward personal spiral at the time of the leaks. The private had previously sent an "anguished" email to a sergeant about his still-unclear gender identity, punched a superior and been restrained because "other soldiers thought he was trying to grab a weapon." He was brought in for psychiatric evaluations "regularly" -- then sent to Iraq and given access to classified material. And guns.

While the public debate remains focused on vilifying or deifying Manning, we ignore the larger issue, that the military has been horrifically reckless when it comes to emotionally disturbed servicemen and women throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Isn't that what we should be outraged about? Why was this kid even there? And if this material was so very, very secret, why did he have access to it? And guns. Did I mention he had access to guns, even after his colleagues had to restrain him from turning one on them? I feel like that bears repeating.

The portions of Manning's trial dealing with classified material will most likely be held in secret, so we'll never fully know how serious, minor, benign or dangerous the material he had access to really was perceived by the military to be. What we do know is that rather than fix the system, the military has decided it is easier to make an example of Manning. Torturing the accused, they seem to believe, will instill discipline in the others and fix this entire problem. That's morally wrong and unbelievably dangerous.

Bradley Manning broke the rules -- very serious rules -- as a member of the armed forces. He must absolutely answer for that, as any member of the armed services will tell you. I hate to thumb my nose at millennia-long traditions of martyrdom, but being abused does not make one a hero, just as sharing classified material with the press does necessarily mean that one intended to harm national security. It's a complicated situation that calls for reasoned, informed, fair-minded deliberation.

Let's hope that Judge Col. Denise Lind is more up to the job than the rest of us.