Reducing the debate over national security to ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ is insulting and dangerous, writes Joyce McMillan
WEDNESDAY evening, and I am listening to Radio 4’s The World Tonight programme debating the verdicts handed down by a US military court in the case of Bradley Manning, the young US army intelligence operative who leaked millions of military and diplomatic documents to the Wikileaks website, to the major embarrassment of the US Government.
We have already heard how Manning was found guilty on all counts, except that of aiding the enemy; and now two opposing Americans – Steve Bucci of the right-wing neo-conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, and the civil rights lawyer and journalist Chase Madar – are discussing the outcome of the trial.
And what I am thinking, in the quiet of an Edinburgh evening, is just how completely unreassured I feel by this conversation; how uncertain that the freedom of the ordinary citizen to speak, to associate, to think, to campaign, and to learn about what is happening in the world, is still in any way a core value of leading western governments. It’s not that I am a particular admirer of Bradley Manning, or of his most recent successor Edward Snowden, or of the Wikileaks empire to which Manning leaked the information. What chills the blood, rather, is the language in which securocrats like Steve Bucci seek to dismiss and discredit this latest generation of electronic whistleblowers. The US security services exist, he says, “to keep good guys alive and to catch bad guys”; and in seeking to make some of their activities more difficult, Manning has essentially become a “bad guy”.
Now this is not, it seems to me, the language of a political analyst addressing a society of adults; it is rather the language of a veteran member of the military-industrial establishment – Bucci was an assistant to secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld, during the George W. Bush administration – addressing a public whom he has come to regard as children, to be endlessly bamboozled with the idea that the bad guys are just beyond the gate, and that only the grown ups in the Pentagon know how to deal with them. And the tone of the British military-industrial establishment, while a little less obviously offensive, likewise boils down, in the debate over Edward Snowden’s GCHQ revelations, to a suffocatingly complacent assertion that since Britain is a “free” country, it is unthinkable that our security forces would do anything wrong; when in fact, it’s precisely our ability to discover wrongs that have been done in our name, and to hold public servants of all kinds to account, that gives us any right to call ourselves a free country at all.
If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, though, then it seems that the people of both Britain and the United States are sound asleep on the job. Twelve years of the so-called “war on terror”, accompanied – in Britain – by unceasing attacks on the very phrase “human rights” from sections of the media and the Tory Party, seems to have left a large majority of the population inured to the idea that constant official invasions of privacy are the norm, and that law-abiding folks will “have nothing to fear.”
This has , of course, been the mantra of authoritarian and totalitarian governments down the ages, as any student of history knows.
But most people are not students of history, and will therefore miss the faint whiff of coercive totalitarianism that now hangs in the air, both in the insistence that we accept official invasions of privacy without protest, and in the shrill demands for a uniform and hysterical royalist patriotism that seem ever more prevalent in Britain’s mainstream media; this Saturday evening, the BBC rolls out its new celebrity show I Love My Country, a Union-flag-draped mass entertainment that would have been unimaginable even five years ago.
As for the forces of opposition to this drift to the authoritarian right – well, their strongest supporters could not argue that they are in good shape. Julian Assange of Wikileaks is evading serious rape accusations by lurking in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Organisations like Shami Chakrabarti’s Liberty do their best to raise questions where they can, but lack public support; the opposition political parties, including Labour, run scared of public attitudes, and do not take a stand. And on Radio 4 the other night, the lawyer Chase Madar seemed more interested in point-scoring over the Bush administration’s lamentable foreign policy record, than in raising the vital questions of conscience and legality that circle round the Bradley Manning Case; including the undoubted fact that if Manning thought he was exposing illegal acts amounting to war crimes, then he not only had a legal right to take action, but an obligation to do so, under international law.
What we need, in other words, is a public debate that takes the principles of accountability and legality seriously, and does not seek to shut down legitimate questioning with patronising guff about “bad guys” and “good people”. We need military establishments that can tell the difference between spying and whistleblowing, even when they believe that the whistleblowing has gone too far; Julian Assange this week described Manning’s espionage convictions as an example of “security extremism”, and for once it is difficult to disagree with him. And we need politicians who can and will exercise independent judgment and scrutiny over these matters, and are not permitted any dalliance with the job promises and consultancy fees of a military-security industry with a vast vested interest in talking up conflict, and keeping the public ill-informed.
At the moment, a short film is circulating on the internet called “I am Bradley Manning”, inviting people to identify with the convicted whistleblower. More important, though, is the “Wake Up” message, with added expletive, of the blog on which it appears. For unless the great British and American peoples soon undergo an awakening of awareness on an epic scale, and begin to reassert their right to be treated as adult citizens in their own lands, their historic liberties will become a thing of the past; if only because freedoms always wither and decay, where those who have won them cease to value and defend them, and become too preoccupied with the bread and circuses of their time, to notice that they have gone.