‘I am Bradley Manning?’ – But Wait, Actually, Are You?
Bradley Manning poses one of the single largest conundrums that we have had to face this side of the last 40 years.
The “I am Bradley Manning” video going around, full of the usual celebrity wannabe activists, is as confusing as it is contrived. Because Manning has become representative of the one thing that we, as a society, really don’t have a clue how we feel about.
With the advent of the internet, WiFi, laptops, iPads, smartphones and so-on, life has become a great deal easier. We can Whatsapp a friend on the other side of the world, while brushing our teeth, listening to Spotify and downloading the latest Grisham.
The dissemination of information has become, not just prolific, but expected. This presents us with a series of issues. The advancement of technology is a marvellous, wondrous thing, but, at the risk of sounding sensationalist, it has challenged our concept of status quo and, possibly, of right and wrong.
Let’s break those two ideas down. As far as over-arching systems go, the internet has, arguably, the power to usurp many existing government structures in the “free” world.
Gone are the days when a few semen stains on a blue dress were all you had to worry about. Information leaks now have the power to embarrass politicians at any given moment – just ask Andrew Mitchell how he feels about a few thousand people watching “plebgate” on YouTube.
Embarrassment is one thing – politicians have an uncanny way of bouncing back from even the most ridiculous slurs on their character…ahem, Anthony Weiner – but on a more serious level, the power of the internet is almost unfathomable. It is such that only the most geeky of computer genii can seriously approximate it’s full potential.
Fortunately or unfortunately, whichever side of the argument you come down on, it doesn’t even take a super-hacker to use the internet to outsmart a government. In Britain, a bunch of teenagers very quickly used BBM messaging to orchestrate the sort of widespread rioting that had the government totally flummoxed.
Similarly, the Arab Spring spread like wildfire, causing significant and lasting upheaval, on the basis of being able to cleave micro-blogging to protester advantage. Seemingly, it is a truth universally acknowledged that tyrants and autocrats are s___ at Twitter.
So what then? When the government have been so consistently undermined as to lose the ability to act with effective authority, it leaves us with a vacuum. Humans are natural followers. Whether it’s God or David Cameron, Gandhi or Beckham, we like to know that someone else is in charge, that someone else is smarter and better and more in control.
For those of us who can’t run to Jesus, if the only person who seems to be more omnipotent than the world leaders is a computer hacker, are we then supposed to put our trust in them?
Groups like Anonymous have acted as a force for good on the odd occasion, and they sure are terrifyingly clever, but a lot of their actions speak of pointless anarchy and, sometimes, alarming cruelty.
Thanks to organised religion (mainly Christianity, but Judaism, Islam and occasionally Buddha get a look in), we have a nice little set of right and wrongs to use as the premise for morality. We should honour our fathers, not covet false neighbours, have no other Sabbath and always take adulterers’ names in vain…something like that. It gets a bit shady around the hating homosexuals and smiting people part, but we’ve got the vague idea.
The internet has uprooted many of these established concepts, though. And perhaps quite rightly. We’re not really sure.
For one, it has removed us from the scene of the crime. It’s an annoyingly overused example, but still incredibly demonstrative; we download music from peer-to-peer sites all the time. Technically, it’s illegal. Technically, it’s theft. But as we are doing it from the comfort of our own beds, without having to stuff a CD into our pants and try and beat the shop’s security barriers, it doesn’t really feel like it. And theft of this kind is now so widespread, that we are beginning to re-evaluate whether we should class it as theft, or just fact and move on…
You could argue that sexting someone other than your partner fits into this category. Technically, we think, it is probably adultery. Sort of. In thoughts, it is certainly a betrayal. In stupidity, it is obviously up there. But seeing as you aren’t actually in the same room and you didn’t actually put your penis inside someone else, you just threw a picture of it out towards the general ether, does it entirely count?
What Bradley Manning did was theft, technically. It was also espionage, technically. It was very nearly, technically, treason. But what do these things really mean today? And where does right and wrong fit into all of this?
The general understanding in the pro-Manning camp is that he did what he did for the “greater good”. But if those of us who like to think we belong in that category aren’t entirely sure what “good” is, it all gets a bit confusing.
If it is to be considered “good” that nobody is being lied to and everybody everywhere knows lots of stuff – including the exact whereabouts of government operatives, intelligence strategies and communications between diplomats – then Bradley Manning was successful in bringing this about.
Unfortunately, though, not everybody who now knows lots of stuff is inherently “good”, in the traditional sense of the word, including, but not limited to, internet trolls whose only motivation is chaos and the leaders of some particularly volatile, but relatively powerful countries.
Then again, it is the general understanding in the anti-Manning camp, that what he did constituted a massive breach of “national security.” If, by “security”, you mean the ability for government agents to do their job without worrying too much about being targeted by terrorists and the like, then fine, Bradley Manning has compromised this considerably.
But if, by “security”, you are implying the collective feeling of confidence and safety that a nation of people have in putting their trust in the government that shoots unarmed civilians in Baghdad (see the “Collateral Murder” video ) and orders unlawful background checks on unwitting participants, well, then maybe that particular brand of “security” deserves to be disrupted.
Are you though? By all accounts, Manning was a fairly disturbed guy. An insecure young chap, with a troubled family background, who never felt he had a home and who wasn’t very sure about his sexuality. Bradley Manning, it seems, didn’t even really know who he was.
He was also a very junior Private First Class soldier, who mysteriously had access to things far beyond his remit, things which he was able to collect in astonishing volume, and send to Wikileaks while still on duty. So many of the details are a bit bizarre, that a lot of people aren’t sure if Bradley Manning is even the real Bradley Manning.
The real point, of course, that the ‘I am Bradley Manning’ video is trying to make, is that any good person would have done the same in the same position.
Faced with a list of humanitarian, legal and moral abuses on such a scale, we’d all, obviously, hope to be brave enough to sacrifice our personal safety and break the law, if necessary, to expose them. Sure.
But when the implications are so much more ambiguous than this: who do we trust if we can’t trust an elected representative, is it right that everybody should know everything, how many innocent people are we actually putting in danger, what are the less “good” people going to do with this information, what is the “greater good” and isn’t a bit of secrecy, sometimes, essential to making decisions for it and, most importantly, does the power of the internet trump everything else…? the answer is so much less obvious.
I sure as hell don’t know if I’m Bradley Manning. Do you?