America has a proud tradition of civil disobedience. From Henry David Thoreau who went to jail rather than pay a tax to support slavery to Martin Luther King Jr. who went to jail in protest over laws in Alabama that he was convinced were discriminatory. The latest in that line appears to be a young Army private named Bradley Manning who is facing a court-martial for leaking confidential and classified material. As Manning sees it, he was simply trying to alert the American public to the atrocities their armies were committing in Iraq and Afghanistan where he perceived a “bloodlust,” what he called a “total disregard for human life.”
As we are told by HuffPost, in a 35 page document he read prior to his court-martial he said he was disturbed by the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the way American troops treated the populace; he did not believe the release of the information he downloaded onto a thumb drive would harm the U.S.
Manning went on to say, “I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.” In a word, he saw his act as an act of patriotism that would draw attention to a situation he thought his fellow Americans would abhor. In his statement, for example, he claims he saw films of American soldiers who killed 11 men, including a Reuters photographer, and they seemed to be exhibiting the same sort of delight as a group of young boys “torturing ants with a magnifying glass.”
The key to civil disobedience, as King noted, is to draw attention to an unjust law while at the same time showing a willingness on the part of the disobedient to respect laws in general. As King said in his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,”
“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. . . . One may want to ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all'”
The difference between Manning’s case and that of King or even Thoreau is that Manning did not disobey a civil law; he is a member of our armed forces and it will be argued that as a private in the Army he has an obligation to follow orders and not put the nation at risk by leaking thousands of classified documents. One could counter that the war in Iraq (as St. Augustine would argue) was an unjust war and that Manning is on solid moral grounds. Still, he is in the military and it is doubtful that Manning will escape the harsh judgment of a military court that will have what it regards as the nation’s best interest in mind — and future military discipline as well. They will want to make an example of this man, it seems, and he is facing the very real prospect of life in prison.
But the parallels with Thoreau and King are striking and one does wish the young man could be tried in a civil court by a jury of his peers. In the end, though, the moral high ground that Martin Luther King always sought no longer seems to be a concern in this “war on terror” that really isn’t a war at all but is a nightmare in which we seem to be lowering ourselves to the level of the very people we are protecting ourselves against.