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Would You Have Done What Bradley Manning Did?

In every society, democratic or totalitarian, the sensible, grown-up thing to do is to commit to the long haul of sleazy conformity.

US Army Private Bradley Manning is escorted out of a military court facility during the sentencing phase of his trial August 20, 2013 in Fort Meade, Maryland. Manning will be sentenced Wednesday for handing a mass of data to WikiLeaks in the biggest breac



You've got to be a little sick in the head to take a moral stand. Even more so if you've done it without financial or personal reward, or expectation of acknowledgement or acclaim. That, it seems, is the tacit consensus at  Bradley Manning's court martial. Last week,  it heard expert witness regarding the medical and psychological factors which might mitigate or explain his decision to leak classified files to  WikiLeaks in 2009.

It's tempting to see this testimony as verging on the pathologising of political dissent. In the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union, writers and activists were commonly detained on  mental health pretexts. The logic was that the state was so obviously correct in its policies, only a lunatic could think otherwise. By treating its critics as symptomatic, the regime could deny its opponents the dignity of a criminal charge and the opportunity to contend rationally with their accusers. Torture, drugging and incarceration could be carried out under the guise of treatment, and done so indefinitely – in some cases, inducing chronic mental health problems, closing the causative loop.

But Manning's case is not comparable. Put alongside  his own account, the diagnoses of fetal alcohol syndrome and gender dysphoria seem justified and accurate. Furthermore, the expert witnesses have noted that, in other areas, Manning's behaviour falls outside standard diagnostic criteria. In short, it's all a bit more complicated, and taken in the round, points in another direction – offering less of an insight into Bradley Manning's personality, and rather more into yours and mine.

Because the implicit corollary to all of the above is that a better-adjusted private first class in Bradley Manning's position would have watched the Collateral Murder video and done … nothing. Sure, he might have been mildly concerned or shocked, at least at first. But he'd have accepted the comforting constraints of rules and regulations. He'd probably have told himself that his superiors knew best, and resigned himself to the fact that such things just happen in wartime. Whatever the case, it was not his place to make a fuss, but rather to stick to the upkeep of the infrastructure that sustained and made it happen.

I think we can take this a little further still, and guess that another part of our hypothetical Manning-stand-in's well-ordered brain would have added that these matters were not his problem. Grotesque as they were, they posed no direct threat to him, his family or his friends. And his more realistic, grounded imagination might have accurately envisaged the life-wrecking catastrophe he'd bring on himself by exposing such material. He'd also be worldly enough to know that even if any of it came to light at a later date, he wasn't going to be held responsible for having not revealed it. He'd know there'd be safety in the huge number of other normal, eyes-averting types like himself.

That's what a mentally-healthy, self-confident, ontologically-secure person would (and should) have done, according to the court martial's brutally low opinion of the regular human being. In this, it is almost certainly correct. Because others – many others – must have seen the same material that Manning eventually leaked. Normal people, presumably: people like us.

Or maybe not like you. For whatever cocktail of reasons, maybe you'd have done as Manning did and with it, terminated or at least jeopardised any possibility of a normal life, freedom of movement and association, relationships with friends and family, and much sense of belonging to a country and a people. But until you're in that situation, you can't know; and let's face it, you probably wouldn't. You're not  crazy.

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