Sun 18 Dec, 2011 03:11 am
Bradley Manning, a serving soldier, is being put on trial this week for leaking official documents, much or all of which was classified information about the Iraq war, to Wikileaks which disseminated it worldwide.
He did this apparently because he thinks that the invasion of Iraq was a tragic mistake, justified by lies.
Did he do right, in the wider sense?
Should his maltreatment while in custody be a matter for the courts?
Can he receive a fair trial?
He can get a fair trial to the extent that there is no doubt that what he did was a violation of law. If he has been maltreated, then certainly he should have the opportunity to redress that through law. As for any moral issue, i have scant sympathy with the idea that what he did raises him to a moral level at which he should be immune from punishment for such actions. Leaving aside that many people would disagree about the moral superiority of his position, civil disobedience in support of one's principles means that the "disobeyer" is prepared to endure the civil consequences of his or her actions. It's a pretty straightforward case of "if you can't do the time, don't do the crime." Apart from that, there's no moral justification that this is a bad law--even if it were, as Roosevelt said, the best way to get rid of a bad law is to enforce it. But the laws which prohibit soldiers and civilican employees of the armed forces from leaking documents are not bad law--in fact, they are essential. That people at the highest levels behaved badly, or even broke the law does not mitigate or justify his criminal action. Laws protecting national security are essential and indispensible, even if they can be used to shield law-makers and executives from the consequences of their cupidity and venality.
I don't know if Mr. Manning believes he should get a pass for having acted in a morally superior manner (allegedly). Whether or not he did, those who would claim he did and therefore should be exempt from his punishment are wrong. That's not, in any event, what civil disobedience is about. In Edwardian England, the Salisbury and Asquith governments were content to ignore the sufragists and they and Parliament were happy to use the convenient abilityto label the sufragists as hysterical women to avoid the issue of the franchise for women. The women who defaced public property and works of art were willing to accept that they would be prosecuted and imprisoned for their actions because they believed in their cause. They knew in advance that there was a legal and social cost to pay, and they were willing to pay it. That's what civil disobedience is all about. It is no different than the willingness to be maimed or killed in defense of one's country.