At the culminating point of the movie A Few Good Men, Colonel Jessup, played magnificently by Jack Nicholson, angrily tells the truth and shockingly incriminates himself. The interrogating lawyer LT Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), in his moment of victory, refuses to gloat. Instead, he abruptly ends his interrogation and demands that rule of law prevail, saying, "The defendant has rights!"
The famous courtroom scenes from this movie are well-known and oft-quoted by many Americans. A Few Good Men is formulaic, but it is the formula we particularly love – proud patriots who believe in right and wrong, in black and white, in law over lawlessness, Davids who fight a powerful Goliath. Against all odds, eventually our heroes win when the powerful and vindicating truth is revealed for all to see.
In another time, this would be the story of Bradley Manning.
A Few Good Men dramatically exposes the deformation and distortion of right and wrong that is the very demand of state utilitarianism, which is to say, an action is right if is promotes the state's happiness, and an action is wrong if it tends to make the state unhappy. Colonel Jessup called for the harsh physical punishment of a "substandard Marine" and thus Corporal Santiago was killed by his comrades. The state, represented by Jessup, explains, "…Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives…."
Charged but not convicted of any crime, American PFC Brad Manning is being held largely incommunicado at Quantico, without bedding or permission to exercise in his cell. He is purposely deprived of human contact. His current treatment – based on unproven charges – is far harsher than the treatment and sentences of four famous and convicted US federal-level spies.
Former FBI agent Robert Hanssen was arrested in early 2001, and charged with selling secrets to the Soviets during the preceding two decades. Upon arrest, Hanssen confessed and was able to hire as an attorney the extremely competent Plato Cacheris, who negotiated a plea bargain. After an entire career spent profiting from the sale of classified information to the Soviets and later the Russian Federation, he is held at Supermax in isolation. Well, not exactly like Brad Manning – Hanssen has bedding, books, and exercise.
The case of career CIA employee and horrific spy/profiteer, Aldrich Ames, is also instructive. After his arrest and lawyer-facilitated plea bargain, Ames was not held forever in isolation at a Supermax-style facility. Instead, he resides at Allenwood Federal Prison with the general population, and is able to receive visitors and to correspond with people outside the prison on issues of current interest.
Two other famous convicted federal-level spies of the same era include Army Warrant Officer James Hall and Army Colonel George Trofimoff. These military officers who sold secrets were not tortured, nor were they deprived of their constitutional rights to a fair defense. Even though they are convicted military spies, they are serving less intensive punishments than either Ames or Hanssen, and were treated far better than PFC Manning.
Manning is not accused of selling secrets, or profiting from their release. Washington has made charges; it suspects Manning is partly responsible for publicly embarrassing the federal security apparatus. But as the Pentagon and the State Department both admit, even if Manning was the source of some government documents, the revelations did not seriously impact government operations.
What has changed? Is Brad Manning thought by government to be a different kind of criminal? Has what he is alleged to have done more evil, more dangerous, more damaging than previous crimes, or even the crimes he may have exposed? Or is it Americans themselves who have changed, with a new 21st century sangfroid?
The Constitution languishes and the state has surged since 9/11. Americans, by and large, still accept the strawmen arguments for giving up their liberty. The modern American is afflicted, not blessed, with an overgrown and paranoid state, as this timeline of the evolution of solitary confinement in the land of the free and the home of the brave illustrates. Administrative lockdown – torture really – is the new black in the fashion of American governance, and many Americans politely applaud it.
Bradley Manning's incarceration has been clearly designed to punish, to threaten, and to pressure him, and to frighten thousands of others who have access to records of government criminality and idiocy, and may be having pangs of conscience. To date, Manning has not confessed or plead guilty to any crime, despite months of pressure by his military-appointed defense team (only recently replaced by civilian attorney David Coombs). He is deprived of pillow and sheets as an apparent means of coercing some testimony that would help the government create a separate case against the Australian Julian Assange and Wikileaks.
Keeping secrets – shutting down critics and eliminating public dissent – is the lifeblood of the state, and a reliable marker of totalitarianism. The mistreatment of Brad Manning while in military custody continues. As with others before him, Manning may be permanently physically and psychologically damaged before it's over. This calculated destruction of a real human being is no accident. It is a widely practiced technique of despotic government at any level – whether in a disturbed family, in a prison or mental hospital, or by a government ostensibly put in place through a democratic process. Despotic government is sustained by silence, by blindness, by fear. It is destroyed by shared truth, by open eyes, and by a few courageous souls to lead the way.
Thus, Brad Manning is made out to be a different kind of criminal, one far more deadly to the state than international spies, profiteers, murderers and cheats. He angered the state when he exposed a few of its many crimes. Instead of thanking Brad Manning for revealing weaknesses in their secret-keeping mechanisms – the state became enraged and violent, and now demands his moral and spiritual destruction. Inseparable from Washington's call for Brad Manning's continued torture and deprivation of rights is Washington's public political cheerleading for the detention and death of Australian Julian Assange.
The state believes that Brad Manning's death, though tragic, will save lives of those the state deems valuable. Washington believes that Julian Assange's death, while unfortunate, is necessary to maintain good order and discipline among the ruled.
The state indeed is at fault, but at least the US government assaults on Brad Manning, and on Julian Assange, are battles for nothing less than its own survival. If we do not believe in the state, we cannot be ruled by it. This is the fundamental lesson of the rise and fall of empires, from Rome to the Soviet Union.
In A Few Good Men, Lt Kaffee battled state-utilitarianism, in the face of near certain public humiliation, the almost certain end of his career, and the extreme likelihood of professional and personal failure. When he rose to the challenge, and took a great risk to do the right thing, the audience felt a rush of pride, cheering his achievement, and sharing a real sense of what we like to think it means to be an American. Brad Manning is both the hero in our modern story, as well as the defendant. If we as Americans cannot cheer him, because we are numb, fearful, afraid, and have forgotten our principles, at the very least we must be able to stand up and loudly proclaim, "The defendant has rights!"