It’s Up to Us to Honor Chelsea Manning’s Legacy

Surprised mingled with joy merged into relief and gratitude as the news settled into my consciousness: President Obama commuted Chelsea Manning’s sentence. In 4 months, she will be a free woman.

Whistleblower Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking about 700,000 cables of classified information to Wikileaks, exposing war crimes, corruption, and deception. Isolated in solitary confinement for the first ten months of her imprisonment, deprived of social interaction, sunlight, and occasionally even clothing, and denied a trial for 3 years, Chelsea Manning endured torturous conditions even before her conviction. Just this past year, she was twice driven to attempt suicide, after which she was harshly punished rather than helped. A transgender woman subjected to psychological torment in a male prison, she desperately needs freedom, needs to see the thousands of people who support her, before her soul is utterly crushed by the weight of vicious vindictiveness. So I am grateful for her commutation. It helps to restore my faith in mercy, for Chelsea Manning and for a world teetering on the verge of destruction and despair.

The commutation falls short of the full pardon I still believe Chelsea Manning deserves, but her courageous soul will see the light of day while she is still young. That is a blessing for which President Obama has my sincere gratitude. I realize I cannot expect more of President Obama, or any president, in this matter. He believes that Chelsea Manning has served an appropriate punishment for an action that may have put national security at risk, and national security must be his highest priority. The argument that she has, in fact, helped national security and acted to save the soul of America, as well as the lives of all people threatened by America’s wars, will not be made by the Commander in Chief of the American Empire. But I am compelled to join the voices of her many supporters and activists to help make that case myself.

David Coombs, Manning’s defense lawyer, argued during her trial that her revelations gave no specific information that harmed American soldiers or Afghani or Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Manning’s military trial blocked dozens of witnesses that Coombs requested testify, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Coombs maintained that such witnesses would have revealed that Manning’s revelations did not disclose sources or methods. Manning supporter Nathan Fuller argues that information such as that which Manning leaked is regularly overclassified, in violation of President Obama’s own executive order 13526 which prohibits the classification of information to hide legal violations, prevent embarrassment, or hinder transparency, as long as national security is not jeopardized. Glenn Greenwald goes so far as to argue that Chelsea Manning’s disclosures to Wikileaks helped to end the Iraq war, for which Obama largely receives credit. Obama tried to keep US troops in Iraq beyond the withdraw date set in place by the Bush administration, Greenwald maintains, citing a CNN report, but he could not secure legal immunity for US troops who commit war crimes due in part to the unconscionable crimes exposed in the Collateral Murder video. Without such a guarantee, he was compelled to bring the troops home.

Thus, others have argued, the consequences of Chelsea Manning’s revelations saved rather than harmed the lives of US soldiers by helping to bring them home, as well as spared countless Iraqi civilians the continuation of a brutal and ill-begun war. But the revelations also exposed war in all its unvarnished horror and put the lie to all noble justifications. They exposed bloodlust and indifference to human life. They humiliated the Empire and marred the narrative of American exceptionalism. Undeniably, this thwarts military efforts to obtain objectives of conquest and domination, the inability to prolong the Iraq war being one example (notwithstanding the return of troops when ISIS emerged from the devastation left in the wake of destruction and death). Thus, the military and political objections to Chelsea Manning’s actions and her commutation are predictable and understandable, as is the temptation to hide mistakes and crimes, greed and selfishness behind a veil of secrecy, a locked door marked “CLASSIFIED.”

The truth that Chelsea Manning’s most unforgiveable crime was not endangering soldiers or civilians but puncturing the myth of the righteous nobility of American violence is undeniable when one considers that others who leaked more sensitive, but less damning, classified information were spared jail time, pardoned, or never charged at all. Leaks that bolster the image of the administration or the military are forgiven or celebrated, while those that embarrass are condemned. And many are persuaded to ignore the crimes of high-ranking officials while joining in the condemnation of lowly leakers with an argument that is not devoid of logic: when our image is tarnished, enemies are emboldened, making us all less secure.

There may be real consequences to exposing the truth of our worst actions (even without sensitive information). But arrogance and ignorance are always deadlier than truth. Secrecy is a false security that imprisons us in a lie.

When we blind ourselves to the truth of our actions, we keep the cycle of war churning. Turning a blind eye to our own faults keeps us from recognizing the humanity of our adversaries, as we fail to recognize their violence as the reflection and natural consequence of our own. Far more damaging to national and individual security than any leak is war itself. The fear and distrust and dehumanization that war produces, the erosion of compassion and the epidemic of brutality, self-perpetuate as enemies lose all differentiation in the exchange of battle. No peace can be made until we confront the worst within ourselves that brings out the worst in others. Chelsea Manning’s revelations makes it possible to do that, and therefore bring us closer to peace.

Chelsea Manning sought forgiveness for her crime of exposing the crimes of others. But the truth is, we all need forgiveness for the crimes we seek to hide from the world and ourselves. In our own ways, we face the same temptation as the establishment to conceal the worst within ourselves and lash out at those who would expose our faults. But when we deny our faults and condemn those who would expose them, we erode our own souls and poison our relationships. We are in a national state of denial as our nation hides from its faults and scapegoats whistleblowers. As truth-tellers are silenced, we condemn ourselves to unending war which will eventually expose us to the same suffering we inflict overseas. When that day comes, our false image of exceptionalism will not comfort us.

But the good news is that we are forgiven already. The God who knows who we are in all of our faults also knows the people we can and will become, and redeems us and our enemies – our brothers and sisters – alike. Knowing we are loved, we can face the truth of our evil with the greater truth of our capacity for good, and recognize that we can and must do better. If we let Chelsea Manning’s revelations spark a national debate on our foreign policy, as they were meant to do, we can find ways to seek and offer forgiveness, repair our damage and invite reciprocal good will.

The truth indeed will set us free. While Chelsea Manning awaits her freedom from federal prison, we can claim our freedom from our false righteousness now, and move toward a world free of enmity by acknowledging and renouncing our own evil. President Obama can remove her shackles, but it is up to us to honor her legacy. Let us face the hard realities she exposed and move forward from the darkness of deception into the sunlight of truth.

Editor’s Note: I want to let Chelsea Manning herself have the last word. Read her statement upon sentencing to learn more about her motives here.

Image: “free chelsea manning : san francisco pride parade (2014)” by torbakhopper via flickr. Available via Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivs 2.0 Generic license.

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