Bradley Manning is the key

Where Julian Assange is not: London's Wandsworth Prison

While Julian Assange has left Wandsworth Prison in London for the relative freedom of Vaughan Smith’s Suffolk mansion, the key to the whole affair suffers a tellingly different fate. Here’s Glenn Greenwald in Salon on the conditions under which Bradley Manning, the alleged source of the Wikileaks documents, is currently being held in the Quantico brig:

From the beginning of his detention, Manning has been held in intensive solitary confinement. For 23 out of 24 hours every day — for seven straight months and counting — he sits completely alone in his cell. Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he’s barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions. For reasons that appear completely punitive, he’s being denied many of the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment, including even a pillow or sheets for his bed (he is not and never has been on suicide watch). For the one hour per day when he is freed from this isolation, he is barred from accessing any news or current events programs. Lt. Villiard protested that the conditions are not “like jail movies where someone gets thrown into the hole,” but confirmed that he is in solitary confinement, entirely alone in his cell except for the one hour per day he is taken out.

In sum, Manning has been subjected for many months without pause to inhumane, personality-erasing, soul-destroying, insanity-inducing conditions of isolation similar to those perfected at America’s Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado: all without so much as having been convicted of anything. And as is true of many prisoners subjected to warped treatment of this sort, the brig’s medical personnel now administer regular doses of anti-depressants to Manning to prevent his brain from snapping from the effects of this isolation.

Now think about this: solitary confinement has been a tool in officially-sanctioned at least since Daedalus built the labyrinth for King Minos. It’s bestial, it’s horrible, it’s incontrovertibly torture. But only in our time do antidepressants figure in its protocols. Of course, the minions of Nebuchadnezzar or Philip II had no recourse to serotonin reuptake inhibitors; nonetheless it’s telling that we should seek so efficaciously to treat the symptoms of the very punishment we’re administering. We need to meditate on this paradigm of therapeutic torture, a regimen at once far subtler and more banal than, say, the punishments imagined by George Orwell and Anthony Burgess. There’s something irredeemably sick in the extra measure, something far more sinister than the hanging-manacled-from-the-wall routines of yore.

And let us consider for a moment Manning’s rank: the term “private” came into use in the sixteenth century, when soldiers of the Parliamentary Army in the English Civil War began objecting to the feudal associations of the term “common soldier.” In grasping at privacy, Cromwell’s soldiers asserted a new degree of sovereignty over themselves—a “taking” of personal autonomy that was the modest mirror-image of the “enclosure” of the common fields and pastures that accompanied the rise of property. And now we’re in the midst of another struggle for sovereignty—sovereignty over information. And the lines of battle are similarly drawn. In the sixteenth century, personhood was a kind of property; today it’s information. Then, the contested terms were rights and duties; today, the tension stretches between privacy and secrecy.

Private Manning is now “private” in a very different way from the rest of us. A “maximum custody detainee,” Manning’s contacts with the outside world are restricted in the extreme. The question of his sexuality, too, engages the axis of privacy and secrecy in ways that expose the contradictions bound up in the expression of power in our society. So while Manning’s travails now take place largely out of public view, they’re not outside of the system. Therapeutic torture of the secrecy state, like the bureaucratized prejudices of US policy with respect to gays in the military, is a cruel mirror of postmodern civil society. This is why Private Manning, and not Julian Assange, is the key to the Wikileaks episode. Because what is happening to him in the name of the law is what the leaks are all about.

In l’affaire Assange, there’s no end of distraction to help us assuage these devastating complexities. But we should think of distraction as a obsolete method of dealing with perplexities of the modern age—the way of the twentieth century. Distraction, delivered in the form of mass culture epitomized by television, was the crude tool of a bygone era. Behind it grew thickets of secrecy so complex and interwoven as to seem inextricable from civil society. Of course, the Internet has proven a distraction engine of great efficacy, despite its seeming promise as a tool for cutting the Gordian knot that binds secrecy to privacy in the postmodern state. With Wikileaks, that inextricability is facing its first real test.

You can donate to Bradley Manning’s defense fund here.

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