"I came here to drink milk and kick ass. And I've just finished my milk." - Moss, The IT Crowd

Monday, March 28, 2011

Crime and Punishment

Which do you consider more heinous: breaking an oath and revealing national secrets because you believe the greater good depends on it, or committing cold-blooded murder?

Leaking the Pentagon Papers was the former. The massacre at My Lai was the latter.

Delivering classified materials to Wikileaks was the former. Killing unarmed Afghan civilians and staging the murder scene to make the killings appear "justifiable" was the latter.

Reasonable people can certainly argue about whether Daniel Ellsberg's leaking the Pentagon Papers or Bradley Manning's leaking diplomatic cables was justifiable as a moral duty or contemptible as a breach of national security. However, it would be an extraordinary stretch to argue that these leaks constitute a greater crime than premeditated murder of unarmed civilians in a war zone.

For leaking the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo were prosecuted under the Espionage Act, with a potential life sentence if convicted. (The case was, of course, ultimately thrown out by Judge William Byrne due to gross misconduct by the prosecution.) William Calley, whose criminal actions in the My Lai massacre were well-documented, served three years under house arrest and had his sentence commuted by Richard NixonNo one else was ever convicted of a crime for the events at My Lai.

As has been widely reported, Bradley Manning is being held in solitary confinement under "prevention of injury" watch while awaiting trial on a broad variety of charges, including aiding the enemy. (The prosecution has declined to request the death penalty for the charge of aiding the enemy. Who the enemy might be has not been specified.) While Manning's prosecution is expected and unavoidable, the conditions of his detention are extraordinary and certainly appear to be intended as deliberate and psychologically destructive punishment for the crimes with which he is charged.

Here's the question I have: what conditions of detention are being imposed on the individuals who have been charged with murdering civilians in Afghanistan, taking body parts and photographs as trophies, and covering up these crimes? One of the individuals charged, Jeremy Morlock, who pled guilty to murder, may be eligible for parole in seven years. Is he being held in solitary confinement? Are his clothes taken away every night? Is he prevented from exercising in his cell? If he uses corrective lenses, are his glasses taken away except when he has specific reading or television privileges? I am not arguing that these would be sensible or appropriate conditions of detention for a non-violent prisoner, even when that prisoner is a convicted murderer; but the Department of Defense seems to believe that these are appropriate conditions of detention for Manning, who by all accounts has displayed good behavior as a prisoner and who has never been charged with any violent acts.

As a society, we demonstrate the perceived seriousness of a crime by the severity of the punishment handed down for it. As far as I can tell, the U.S. government takes having its dirty laundry aired far more seriously than it takes murders committed by its soldiers and covered up by its officers. I don't know about you, but I expect that kind of morality from mafiosos. It doesn't say good things about the state of affairs in America.

ETA, 04/19/2011: It appears that Bradley Manning will soon be moved to a medium-security Army prison at Fort Leavenworth, with more humane conditions of detention. I do not think this would have happened without the prolonged public outcry, from many different quarters, about the U.S. government's treatment of Manning as a prisoner. It's encouraging to me that (a) the public was able to learn about the conditions of Manning's detention, (b) people cared enough to complain publicly, and (c) the U.S. government was sufficiently concerned by public reaction to respond in a positive way. Free speech is useful only if you use it. And like most rights, it tends to atrophy if left unused.

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