Paying Attention: Principle Comes Before Loyalty

Do you remember the lame elementary school prank where someone would deceitfully get you to look in another direction while they take something, hit you, or just laugh at your gullibility?

Our susceptibility to this prank apparently never goes away, it's just that the game gets more complicated, and more high stakes.

Exhibit A: the Bradley Manning case.

Bradley Edward Manning, now also known as Chelsea Elizabeth Manning, was a U.S. Army intelligence specialist who was convicted in July 2013 of violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses after releasing the largest set of restricted documents ever leaked to the public. He was slapped with a dishonorable discharge and a 35-year prison sentence (with good possibilities for parole after 10).

The United States government, standing to lose a lot of credibility at home and abroad, has successfully used the media to get the public talking mostly about Bradley Manning himself (including his mental stability) and the abstract debate of whether he's a hero or traitor. As if the public wasn't distracted enough, he decided after his conviction to announce his desire to live as transgendered woman Chelsea Manning. Once again, we saw shock and confusion about something quite trivial in comparison to the horrors Manning revealed, which continue to go unread, undiscussed, and get a shoulder shrug at best. Yes, a lot of people have seen the video of an airstrike against innocent civilians and journalists. But for most, that's the extent of it, and the fact that the video is all we've seen is an indictment of our entertainment-induced poor attention span and our unwillingness to read.

Haven't we fallen for the "hey look" trick one too many times? Of course Manning's actions were illegal. That was never a question. But Manning released these secret documents with a willingness to suffer the consequences (a key criteria for civil disobedience) and did so believing that the justice that could be brought about outweighs any potential negative consequences (another criteria for civil disobedience). Yes, I understand the complexities, and no, I wouldn't want every person with government security clearance out there revealing stuff (e.g., I'd like them to keep my SSN private). But when viewing this particular case from an ethical point of view, it becomes clearer for me. Indeed, some U.S. officials have been forced to admit that they have no evidence that Manning's illegal leak has caused a single personal injury or fatality. The policies and practices of the U.S., however, have killed unspeakable numbers and have wreaked havoc in already volatile places.

The documents leaked by Manning reveal indiscretion, immoral policies, and illegal practices on the part of the U.S. government and military.
  • The "Guantanamo Files" show the trivial and shaky grounds upon which the U.S. has
    arrested and detained "suspected terrorists." For example, some Middle Eastern farmers remain at Guantanamo to this day having been originally arrested for wearing clothing or accessories that are popular among al Qaida operatives. They also reveal that a primary criteria for releasing prisoners is their country of origin, not objective evidence. Such nonsense would never see the light of day in an American court of law, which is why the U.S. State Department has offered millions of dollars to other countries to take and try our prisoners.
  • The "Iraq War Logs" reveal official death tolls, despite the insistence by the White House that there is no official count. Between 2004 and 2009, in Iraq alone, there were 109,000 deaths, and nearly two-thirds (66,081) were non-combatants.
  • The war logs also revealed gruesome reports of prisoner abuse and torture by Iraqi Security Forces, and under an order called “Frago 242” implemented in 2004, U.S. personnel were ordered not to investigate the allegations of abuse, a direct violation of the UN Convention Against Torture, ratified by the U.S. in 1994.
  • Leaked diplomatic cables show that the U.S. Embassy in Haiti was involved in an effort to block a bill that would have raised the minimum wage there. The increase was backed by an overwhelming majority of Haitian lawmakers and citizens, and was initially supported by then-President Rene Preval. But Preval ultimately caved to U.S. pressure and kept the bill from passing.
  • Leaked cables that have become known as the "Amn Dawla Leaks" show the head of Egypt’s State Security Investigative Service (SSIS) had received training from the FBI in Quantico. Human Rights Watch has reported that this same man and his agency "have a longstanding and well-documented record of engaging in arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, and torture and other ill-treatment of detainees."
There is more, but you get the idea.

A disturbing number of Americans seem to not even want to know what Manning's leaks revealed because "he's a traitor," they say, apparently putting loyalty above anything else. How about we put principle above anything else? This appeal to loyalty always reminds me of the die-hard fans of sports teams. Every time there's a game, they are there to cheer the troops on in a defeat of the opponent. When a call is made against their team, they boo, hiss and lash out, regardless of whether the call was correct. When their team makes a mistake or breaks the rules, they either say nothing or blame it on the opponent. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a sermon opposing the Vietnam war, said, "Rationalizations and the incessant search for scapegoats are the psychological cataracts that blind us to our sins. But the day has passed for superficial patriotism." When we're dealing with stuff that affects real people with real families and real lives, we cannot afford to mindlessly cheer for our team, not caring what happens to anyone else.

What a great myth it is that those who criticize their country must hate it. Quite to the contrary, I criticize my country when it is wrong precisely because I love it, and because I want it to be the world's shining beacon of freedom and democracy. Unquestioning loyalty is not only the bane of society but the complicit pathway to power by which some of the world's most brutal leaders have come. Yes, loyalty has a place, and had Manning's actions caused significant harm and loss of life, I wouldn't be writing this. But as it stands, the only significant loss to the United States is its credibility, something that cannot be regained by imprisoning Manning. Credibility should be earned by virtuosity, not maintained by deceit. The best way to know whether you believe in your own principles is whether you live by them.

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