Bradley Manning has been convicted of espionage but acquitted of aiding the enemy in a military court-martial. WikiLeaks’s founder, Julian Assange, said the conviction against a whistleblower was a “dangerous precedent… Bradley Manning’s alleged disclosures have exposed war crimes, sparked revolutions, and induced democratic reform. He is the quintessential whistleblower.”
Manning is facing up to 136 years in jail. His most overt crime was to disclose illegal and immoral activities by (but not only) the US government and military. But he did something else. He confronted the System with its own widespread cruelty. Soldiers shooting unarmed civilians, including a Reuters correspondent, from an Apache helicopter whilst laughing their head off, such level of cruelty is uncomfortable to watch. How can human beings become so dehumanized, so callous? The long list of disclosures points to the same problem. As long as “people in charge” can justify their own cruelty in the name of “my country’s interests” or “national security”, there is no limit to the harm they may inflict on other human beings. Drones? Yes, well, some collateral damage, but they are killing terrorists (and producing many more). Depleted Uranium? Yes, well, very efficient in the battlefield, although they harm the health of soldiers and civilians for years to come.
It is not surprising that the level of cruelty with which Private Manning was treated in jail reflects also the cruelty he unveiled in his disclosures.
Is this only a problem in those in power? Certainly not! The UK media has been awash with stories about women being threatened with rape via Twitter for supporting the image of a female writer in a bank note. Cyberbullying is reaching epidemic proportions and the relative anonymity of on-line tools has allowed the emergence of the internet troll:
“An internet ‘troll’ is an abusive or obnoxious user who uses shock value to promote arguments and disharmony in online communities. Named after the wicked troll creatures of children’s tales, an internet troll is someone who stirs up drama and abuses their online anonymity by purposely sowing hatred, bigotry, racism, mysogyny, or just simple bickering between others. Trolls like a big audience, so they frequent blog sites, news sites, discussion forums, and game chat. Trolls thrive in any environment where they are allowed to make public comments.”
There is no comparison, of course, between cyberbullying and shooting unarmed civilians, but they may be the symptoms that have to be paid attention to, rather than trying to sweep them under the carpet, or giving simple legal responses to them. Laws to prevent war crimes and bullying, which sometimes may lead to victim’s suicides, are clearly important, but the psychological substratum of a system that is becoming progressively more dehumanised cannot be changed by legal frameworks alone.
There is something fundamentally wrong about the values the young acquire over their formative years, through education, TV, cinema, the household they live in, video games and the internet. It’s a system that extols violence, revenge, individualism, competition and finding cruelty amusing. Countless characters in TV series and films that are meant to be “comedy” present cruelty as something to laugh about, a kind of quirk in this or that person that makes them endearing by their inappropriateness but their cruelty is not only forgiven, it is also rewarded.
Children learn by trial and error and by imitation. Can we really believe that what they see on TV does not affect them, no matter how many studies try to disprove it? If that were the case, advertising would not exist. But it does because the uncritical way in which we watch TV and films, and now videogames, does affect us, and affects children. In the same way History, that extols the “successful” conquerors and mass murderers in the classroom, has an influence. It makes us believe in a violent and unchangeable “human nature”, denying the most important quality of the human being, the capacity to choose and to change.
The propaganda capacity to create a partisan image of reality is nothing new. Shakespeare himself partook in a smear campaign by the Tudors to present Richard III as a highly deformed and murderous king and Art has produced paintings of gentlemanly surrender after battles that were sanitised to a high degree.
Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and so many other whistleblowers are people who made a choice to show a different History. Those fighting the on-line bullying and trolls are showing the courage and commitment to limit the damage they can do. But without a critical look at the formation landscape of today’s young, and bringing to centre stage the values of nonviolence, solidarity, humanisation, empathy and equality both in education and in the media, cruelty will continue to grow.
Here are some words by Silo delivered on May 7th 2005, relevant to choices we are to make:
“How can people decide about the direction of their lives when they are very far from being in control of their daily situations? How can people decide freely about the meaning of their lives if they are subject to needs imposed by their own bodies? How can they freely choose, enchained as they are to a system of economic urgencies—a system of family relationships, work, and friendship that at times becomes a system of unemployment, despair, loneliness, helplessness, and failed hopes? How can people freely decide on the basis of manipulated information and the mass-media-induced exaltation of antivalues that hold up as the ultimate model of behavior the powerful, who shamelessly exhibit their violence, threats, abuse, arbitrariness, and lack of reason? How can people decide freely when the moral leaders of the great religions either offer justifications or remain silent in the face of genocide, holy wars, defensive wars, and preventive wars?
“The social atmosphere is so poisoned by cruelty that day by day our personal relations become more cruel, and day by day we treat ourselves with greater cruelty.
“It is the human beings’ great fears that stop them from giving life the direction and meaning longed for. Fear of poverty, of loneliness, of illness, and of death combine and become stronger in society, in human groups, and in individuals.
“But in spite of everything…in spite of everything…in spite of these unfortunate constraints, something soft as a far off sound, something light as a dawn breeze, something that begins gently is opening its way in the interior of the human being…”