Bradley Manning earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on the information war: Bradley Manning’s case is about more than freedom of speech

The young soldier has become a symbol of the information war and its discontents.

America will be judged by its treatment of Private Bradley Manning. The intelligence analyst was 22 years old when he was arrested for sending a cache of diplomatic and military secrets to the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks. This month, as his trial begins, he is 25 and facing life in prison, where he has already spent three years – much of it under conditions that the UN special rapporteur on torture deemed “cruel” and “inhuman” in 2012.

The US military has a history of getting out of torture allegations on technicalities. Its spokespeople would doubtless claim that keeping Manning in solitary confinement under strip lighting for 23 hours a day, forcing him to sleep naked and depriving him of all rights, strained at the definition of torture but did not snap it. Yet it was within the US military’s power to treat Manning as a human being. It chose instead to torment him in a tiny cell and seemed remarkably relaxed about who knew it. The message to everybody else is clear.

It is no surprise that Manning’s trial has generated at least as much interest and outrage internationally as it has done within the US. The reactions to his story fall into roughly three camps.

There are those to whom Manning represents everything loathsome about modernity. He is a queer, effeminate, angry nerd whose morality took precedence over his loyalty to the US military and who, perhaps worst of all, is frighteningly good at the internet. On the other hand, for every other nerd out there, for everyone who was ever bullied at school, for anyone who grew up different, as Manning did in small-town Oklahoma, his story provokes empathy.

Then there are those who feel that, regardless of whether Manning is a hero, a villain, a lost queer kid or a combination of the three, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are paramount – and so is the protection of whistle-blowers.

States maintain power, in part, by maintaining a monopoly on secrets. Both state and corporate power have historically been associated with the ability to operate beyond scrutiny and, in today’s information-rich society, where sharing data and leaking documents is getting easier than ever, there is an ideological battle taking place. On one side are those who believe that such secrecy is anachronistic. On the other are those determined to preserve it by smashing any dissent with ten-tonne fists.

Manning’s case is about more than whether or not whistle-blowers deserve protection. After all, he didn’t release just one item. The publication of the “collateral murder” video, which shows US troops gunning down civilians in Iraq from a helicopter, made very little impact either on those who already saw the war as unjust or on those who believe in America’s right to slaughter thousands of foreigners whenever it gets jumpy. The video was part of an enormous cache Manning sent to WikiLeaks, one that contained hundreds of thousands of classified documents that took teams of journalists months to read, never mind digest. This was a one-shot, one-man campaign against military secrecy and Manning may well spend the rest of his life in prison because of it.

The case isn’t just about whistle-blowing. It’s not even just about freedom of speech. This is about secrets, and who gets to have them, and from whom, and at what cost. As a gay soldier in an army in which being honest about your sexuality could get you fired, assaulted or both, Manning understood the tyranny of secrets on a personal as well as a political level. This was something made clear in the chat logs between Manning and Adrian Lamo, the hacker who turned him in. This is about information and who gets to hoard it. There are a great many people, not just in the military, who believe that states and institutions operate best by keeping swaths of the population ignorant of their workings. There are a great many people, not just in the US, who are suspicious of unsupervised information exchange, of mass higher education and of the internet. Right now, Manning is only the most high-profile of a large number of “hacktivists” and “crackers” being persecuted for sharing information they weren’t supposed to have. Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, in prison for hacking the telecoms firm AT&T, is one. Aaron Swartz, who took his own life in January while facing prosecution for downloading millions of subscription-only academic journals, was another.

There are countless more going through the courts in the US and elsewhere. The US is fighting not only a war on “terror” in the Middle East but a war on information in cyberspace. In choosing to give military secrets to WikiLeaks, Manning placed himself on the front line of both.

If there was a chance for us to understand the real Manning, that chance disappeared somewhere between Quantico and a hundred magazine features attempting to dissect the young, gay soldier’s mental state. He has become a symbol of the information war and its discontents. Yet, conveniently for their persecutors, symbols such as Manning have hearts that can be stressed and stilled and bodies that can be brutalised as a warning to others. Every institution faces the choice between appearing just and appearing powerful. The US military, in its treatment of Bradley Manning, has made its choice.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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The surprising truth about ingrowing toenails (and other medical myths)

Medicine is littered with myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery.

From time to time, I remove patients’ ingrowing toenails. This is done to help – the condition can be intractably painful – but it would be barbaric were it not for anaesthesia. A toe or finger can be rendered completely numb by a ring block – local anaesthetic injected either side of the base of the digit, knocking out the nerves that supply sensation.

The local anaesthetic I use for most surgical procedures is ready-mixed with adrenalin, which constricts the arteries and thereby reduces bleeding in the surgical field, but ever since medical school I’ve had it drummed into me that using adrenalin is a complete no-no when it comes to ring blocks. The adrenalin cuts off the blood supply to the end of the digit (so the story goes), resulting in tissue death and gangrene.

So, before performing any ring block, my practice nurse and I go through an elaborate double-check procedure to ensure that the injection I’m about to use is “plain” local anaesthetic with no adrenalin. This same ritual is observed in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries around the world.

So, imagine my surprise to learn recently that this is a myth. The idea dates back at least a century, to when doctors frequently found digits turning gangrenous after ring blocks. The obvious conclusion – that artery-constricting adrenalin was responsible – dictates practice to this day. In recent years, however, the dogma has been questioned. The effect of adrenalin is partial and short-lived; could it really be causing such catastrophic outcomes?

Retrospective studies of digital gangrene after ring block identified that adrenalin was actually used in less than half of the cases. Rather, other factors, including the drastic measures employed to try to prevent infection in the pre-antibiotic era, seem likely to have been the culprits. Emboldened by these findings, surgeons in America undertook cautious trials to investigate using adrenalin in ring blocks. They found that it caused no tissue damage, and made surgery technically easier.

Those trials date back 15 years yet they’ve only just filtered through, which illustrates how long it takes for new thinking to become disseminated. So far, a few doctors, mainly those in the field of plastic surgery, have changed their practice, but most of us continue to eschew adrenalin.

Medicine is littered with such myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery. Until the mid-1970s, breast cancer was routinely treated with radical mastectomy, a disfiguring operation that removed huge quantities of tissue, in the belief that this produced the greatest chance of cure. These days, we know that conservative surgery is at least as effective, and causes far less psychological trauma. Seizures can happen in young children with feverish illnesses, so for decades we placed great emphasis on keeping the patient’s temperature down. We now know that controlling fever makes no difference: the fits are caused by other chemicals released during an infection.

Myths arise when something appears to make sense according to the best understanding we have at the time. In all cases, practice has run far ahead of objective, repeatable science. It is only years after a myth has taken hold that scientific evaluation shows us to have charged off down a blind alley.

Myths are powerful and hard to uproot, even once the science is established. I operated on a toenail just the other week and still baulked at using adrenalin – partly my own superstition, and partly to save my practice nurse from a heart attack. What would it have been like as a pioneering surgeon in the 1970s, treating breast cancer with a simple lumpectomy while most of your colleagues believed you were being reckless with your patients’ future health? Decades of dire warnings create a hefty weight to overturn.

Only once a good proportion of the medical herd has changed course do most of us feel confident to follow suit. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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