For nearly three years, Bradley Manning, the 24-year-old army private accused of leaking classified documents, has been denied the right to speak in public. He got his chance this week in a Fort Meade, Md. courtroom, but the long denial reminded me of a short story called "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," by Ursula K. Le Guin. It's a fictional tale about villagers who enjoy total happiness and bliss as long as they keep quiet about a boy who's locked up in a dark, underground cellar. The denial that haunts the pages of "Omelas" is also at the center of the government's case against Bradley Manning.
Manning has been in the dark for more than 900 days -- with most of that time spent in solitary confinement. It is the longest pre-trial detention of a U.S. military soldier since the Vietnam War. The extreme conditions of Manning's detention have been widely reported. A Navy psychiatrist who treated Manning testified that his medical recommendations were consistently ignored by commanders. A UN investigation last spring described Manning's conditions as "cruel" and "inhuman."
Like any allegory, the "Omelas"-Manning comparison isn't perfect. Unlike the boy in the story, Bradley Manning may not be innocent. But if there's a strong case against Manning, what accounts for the delay in due process and the extreme conditions of his detention? If the Obama administration believes in protecting whistleblowers, as it codified in new whistleblower-protection legislation that Obama signed this week, why is Bradley Manning's case being treated so differently?
The answer lies in the perceived power of denial. Instead of confronting revelations in the leaked material -- which includes thousands of intelligence documents and diplomatic cables -- the government has chosen to focus its efforts on punishing the suspected leaker.
It's clear that disclosures about how the U.S. has prosecuted its wars and foreign policy have embarrassed the Obama administration. But official denial of government malfeasance is connected to the larger vacation from reality that we as a nation have taken -- especially in the last decade.
There's the denial about prisoner abuse, suicides and coercive methods of interrogation at Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. And the denial of secret intelligence-gathering efforts by U.S. diplomats. There's the denial of secret bombings in Yemen and covert U.S. special operations missions in Pakistan. There's the denial of secret dealings between the U.S. and Ahmed Wali Karzai, the accused drug baron and brother of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. And the denial about civilian casualties, like the now-infamous video that appears to show a U.S. gunship killing 12 people in Iraq. The list goes on.
But the first rule about denial is that no one talks about denial. Beginning late in George W. Bush's second term, we started to hear talk about letting bygones be bygones. Obama followed suit, refusing to investigate the Bush administration for alleged past misconduct.
In an election year, issues related to war and foreign policy took a back seat on the campaign trail, they were largely overlooked at the Republican and Democratic Conventions, and were barely touched upon in the debates.
"Don't litigate the past" is the new American mantra. We have subverted important constitutional protections -- and a vigorous debate about their value -- in the name of national security. But mistakes don't go away just because you cover your eyes or stick your head in the sand. The Patriot Act, which eroded privacy and other American freedoms, was intended as a piece of temporary legislation. But it still exists today.
The government case against Bradley Manning claims that Manning "aided the enemy" and endangered U.S. soldiers, but a 2010 Pentagon review found no such evidence. Who is the enemy? Is it the lack of honesty and dialogue about the shortcomings of U.S. foreign policy? Maybe Pogo, the legendary cartoon character during the Vietnam era, was right when he mused about the need for transparency: "We have met the enemy -- and he is us."
The Bradley Manning trial is an important piece of history and, like the "Omelas" story, it can teach us something about ourselves. I was disappointed this week to see that the New York Times, the American paper of record, gave the story short shrift with a one-page article (a wire story via AP on Thursday) on the week-long hearings.
At the end of the fable, some villagers decide to protest over the town's silence about the secret of the boy in the cellar. The single act of conscience puts their promised utopia in the balance. We might think of doing the same, by reinvigorating a conversation about the "War on Terror" during our decade of denial. Yes, it may put complacency, our false sense of happiness, at risk. But that is to be expected. Guilty or not, Bradley Manning has put uncomfortable truths in front of our eyes.
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