Depending on your view of the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and America’s role in them, Pfc. Bradley E. Manning, the 23-year-old Army soldier who is accused of “aiding the enemy” by leaking classified military and diplomatic documents to the anti-secrecy website, Wikileaks, is either a courageous whistleblower or a traitorous snitch. Manning is alleged to have leaked over 250,000 diplomatic cables, as well as footage of an American Apache helicopter airstrike in Baghdad in which 18 people were killed, many of them civilians. Two of those killed were Reuters journalists. If convicted, Manning could face the death penalty.
There can be no doubt that Manning’s inhumane treatment by the U.S. government is intended to send a clear warning to all those who would challenge the military empire. Manning, a slight intelligence analyst, has been held in maximum solitary confinement at the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia, since July 2010 — treatment normally reserved for the most violent or dangerous of criminals.
Imprisoned in a windowless, 6 x 12 foot cell containing a bed, a drinking fountain and a toilet, Manning has been kept under Suicide and/or Prevention of Injury (POI) watch during his incarceration, largely against the advice of two forensic psychiatrists. Under suicide watch, Manning has been confined to his tiny cell for 24 hours a day and stripped of all clothing with the exception of his underwear. His prescription eyeglasses were taken away, leaving him in essential blindness except for those limited times when he is permitted to read or watch television, at which time his glasses are returned to him. A guard is stationed outside Manning’s cell at all times. In a thinly veiled attempt to harass the young man, guards check on Manning every five minutes, asking if he is OK. He is not allowed to have a pillow or sheets, but he currently has a mattress that has a built-in pillow and two blankets.
He is not allowed to have personal items in the cell, and is only allowed to have one book or one magazine at any time to read in the cell. He is not allowed to exercise in his cell and if he attempts to do push-ups, sit-ups or any other form of exercise, he will be forced to stop by the brig guards. He gets one hour of exercise outside of his cell daily, so his exercise routine consists of him walking around in figure eights in an empty room for an hour. When he goes to sleep, he must strip down to his underwear and surrender his clothing to the guards. If he falls asleep with a blanket over his head or curled up toward the wall, the guards wake him up.
Most recently, it was revealed that Manning was stripped and left naked in his cell for seven hours, after which time he was made to stand naked outside his cell during an inspection — allegedly part of an effort by the government aimed at pressuring Manning to identify others involved in the WikiLeaks case.
The American government, of course, insists that such treatment does not rise to the level of torture. In fact, Col. T. V. Johnson, a Quantico spokesman, characterized charges that Manning has been mistreated as “poppycock.” After all, Manning is not being starved, beaten or waterboarded. He’s merely been denied human interaction and the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment. Yet as surgeon Atul Gawande points out in a 2009 article for the New Yorker, solitary confinement rises to the level of torture.
There was a time in our nation’s history — long before the abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and before we were reprogrammed to think of such practices as waterboarding as benign forms of legalized torture — that even solitary confinement was frowned upon. The Supreme Court even came close to declaring it unconstitutional in 1890 and went so far as to compare it to “[t]he rack, the thumbscrew, [and] the wheel” in its 1940 decision in Chambers v. Florida. Unfortunately, that perception of solitary confinement as torture changed with the rise in popularity of American supermax prisons, designed specifically for mass solitary confinement, in the late 20th century.
Which brings us back to Manning, a young man who hoped to “change something” by exposing what he saw as widespread government corruption. Whether or not Manning is shown to be the source of the leaks, there can be no denying that the information made public by Wikileaks has painted a damning picture of a U.S. government operating in a way that is completely at odds with everything this nation once stood for.
Yet the key here is that Manning, an American citizen entitled to every protection afforded by the U.S. Constitution, has yet to be convicted of anything, which makes his pre-trial incarceration that much more troubling.
John McCain, who experienced torture and solitary confinement during his imprisonment in Vietnam, noted in a 2005 Newsweek editorial, “We are American, and we hold ourselves to humane standards of treatment of people no matter how evil or terrible they may be. To do otherwise undermines our security, but it also undermines our greatness as a nation. We are not simply any other country. We stand for something more in the world—a moral mission, one of freedom and democracy and human rights at home and abroad… It is indispensable to our success in this war that those we ask to fight it know that in the discharge of their dangerous responsibilities to their country they are never expected to forget that they are Americans, and the valiant defenders of a sacred idea of how nations should govern their own affairs and their relations with others — even our enemies.”
Sadly, we in America have conveniently forgotten that we once stood for something more than a warring military empire. Indeed, in our once-stalwart defense of human rights, our adherence to a moral code that was rooted in a respect for human life, and our willingness to lead the world by example through innovation and progress in science and the arts, we were the antithesis of all that America — now the largest international exporter of weapons and war — has come to stand for today.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.