Above: A piece of street art proclaiming a hero. Photo by Timothy Krause on Flickr.
The decision by the Barack Obama administration to commute the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning is something of an anomaly of late. It is the strange phenomenon of a good news headline. With Trump rising to the throne, Sean Finnan takes a look.
There is a strain of mythos being written into American politics over the past few months. In Obama’s commutation of Chelsea Manning’s sentence, he finally fulfils his role through the consecration of eight year’s of liberal hope and becomes the morally good leader that his supporters have always known to be true.
While Trump, the future despot in waiting (despite being voted in by the people) who secured the throne through deceit and lies, represents all that is rotten in the states of America. As the administration is passed over from Obama to Trump, this mythical tale of good and evil is how the Democrats wish to write the narrative of Trump’s ascent to power.
Obama’s administration has been noted for its persecution of whistleblowers. Especially when it came to whistleblowers that harboured classified information on the digital frontier. The Espionage Act of 1917 is “an Act to punish acts of interference with the foreign relations, and the foreign commerce of the Unites States, to punish espionage, and better to enforce the criminal laws of the United States.”
Under Obama’s administration, eight persons were convicted under this act, that’s double the amount of people convicted under all previous administrations combined.
Over the past eight years, whistleblowers have given concrete information as to how the American government operates towards its own citizens and toward foreign nations.
Without whistleblowers we would not be aware of the sophistication of the military’s cyber weapons which have reached the capabilities of crippling another country’s infrastructure through a computer code, or the fact that NSA operated a global surveillance apparatus or that we now have on video, American military personnel gloating over their killing of innocent civilians in Afghanistan.
Whistleblowers acting in a police state are potent harbingers of the truth. Their revelations provide a momentary shock to the system, to how power presents itself and the degree to which they have been persecuted over the past eight years highlights the trouble Obama’s administration has had on sustaining the narrative of its moral goodness.
In a state that operates primarily through deception, the actions of whistleblowers is akin to an X-ray momentarily placed upon its administration showing the skeleton of its inner workings without the lies that flesh it out. In the 1960’s Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara created the Vietnam Study Task in order to write an encyclopaedic history of the Vietnam War. Of the Pentagon Papers that were to come out of the study he stated: “The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring a thousand non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.”
It was this same picture that Chelsea Manning observed daily as an army private with access to thousands of files of classified material. It was not the picture of Uncle Sam that protects the weak nations of the world to deliver freedom that she had expected, it was a picture of the state’s raw power. What Chelsea Manning uncovered in the thousands of military files she looked through was the unrestrained use of violence that made no distinction between combat zone and non-combat zone and was best exemplified in the video Collateral Murder. The video, that made WikiLeaks a household name overnight, showed an American Apache helicopter opening fire on innocent civilians.
Where the Pentagon Papers was a description of the violence inherent in American foreign policy, Collateral Murder presented it to the world in its unmitigated bravado. Chelsea Manning like Daniel Ellsburg and the other whistleblowers that came before him are remarkable because they exist within the American military complex. They are not outsiders looking in, they are the tiny cogs that keeps the system in motion and without their sense of duty, we would never have had access to the such information.
Politics in a police state is all about the suppression of facts so that debate is based on narrow self interest. When truth, as it did through the efforts of Manning and Ellsburg, breaks out into the public domain it undermines the state of politics by showing, however momentarily, that it is based upon trenchant untruths.
How do we look back at Obama’s administration when we have so much evidence before us that his era, more than any other, cracked down so ruthlessly on the whistleblowers? Do we allow his release of Manning to comfort us that he was indeed one of the good guys and if only we had him instead of this crude talking brute Trump, we’d be facing into a brighter world?
These whistleblowers were the truth tellers, figures that were a part of the various nexuses of the state, that seen its inner workings and wanted to flag the discrepancy between word and deed and bring it to public attention. Their rewards for the past eight years has been incarceration.
In the dying lights of Obama’s presidency, how do we view the decision to commute Chelsea Manning’s prison sentence, one that she had still over thirty years to serve? Is it a means to revamp his quickly tarnishing legacy and to embed the narrative of good versus evil?. Or perhaps is it an admission of guilt, an admission that his administration will never have to answer to but an admission nonetheless that the US government actively incarcerates those that speak against the state.
Or perhaps it is a means to provoke critical debate and heap scrutiny on Trump’s military posturings in the early period of his presidency.
The essential difference between Obama and Trump is that one hides the dirty business of war and is almost embarrassed by it, the other sees it as the raison d’etre of the United States. This is the obvious danger of Trump’s fascism, that this dirty business of war becomes a point of pride in his administration.
This is the future that we are facing into, of an American president that for the first time is not shamed by brutality of war but actually thrilled to express joy in its violence.