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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution