What's fair about Private Manning's sentence?

Nicky Woolf is glad that there are still people such as Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning around.

Bradley Manning was young. Alienated by the ultra-macho culture of the US military, and horrified by what he saw the military doing. So he acted on his conscience; leaking documents to Wikileaks that highlighted systematic abuses by US military and security forces, igniting an inferno of outrage and debate in the public.

Yesterday, a military judge took less than a minute to sentence him to 35 years imprisonment for this single act; of this, he has already served more than three, much of it in solitary confinement in appalling conditions.

It sticks in the craw, doesn't it? Doesn't it feel wrong, deep down in the bone? In a nation where the average rapist – if convicted at all – serves fewer than three years, and the average time served for sexual assault is just 35 months, this man, whose crime was simply to show the public how badly their government was behaving, will not even be eligible for parole for another eight years (taking into account the three years already served). What's fair about that? How could this possibly be?

Here is the argument in favour. A government necessarily deals in secrecy a lot of the time. Diplomacy, security and good governance do need to be secretive sometimes to operate in a high-stakes world of nuclear weapons, rogue states, and terrorism. That government must inevitably then prosecute these whistleblowers, and prosecute them harshly, if the system is to stay standing. If Manning was to be pardoned, or given a lighter sentence, then it would send the message that whistleblowing of this kind is legal and sanctioned, and cause a free-for-all which would leave the security forces and diplomatic services completely unable to do their jobs. The recent leak of diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, for example, is pointed at; a diplomatic disaster which made the lives of civil servants at the cutting edge of international politics much more difficult, and maybe endangered lives in the process.

So once Manning had been caught, the US government had to prosecute him, and prosecute him harshly. That, the argument runs, is simply how the game is played.

But that is only half the story. Inevitably, a government often oversteps the line of necessary secrecy. Its culture of secrecy can often become poisonous, self-propelling; a secret world which can undermine and sometimes overrule democracy for its own survival. It may claim to be working to protect us; but what could be so terrifying that our protectors must work so often in the dark?

When that happens, as arguably it has done in recent years in the United States and Britain, it falls to a whistleblower to step forward: an Edward Snowden or a Bradley Manning who are driven by their convictions to sacrifice their lives – as Manning has done – in order to shine a light on such abuses.

The relationship between journalists and governments is by nature antagonistic. It is the role of a newspaper like the Guardian or the New York Times or the Washington Post, or indeed an operation like Wikileaks to seek out such whistleblowers; and to protect them as much as they can afterwards, sometimes by keeping their identities secret for decades. Arguably, Wikileaks failed in its duty of care in protecting Manning.

Of course, a balance needs to be struck. Newspapers like the Guardian have become extremely proficient in working out which leaks are worthwhile, and which may put lives in danger. Smaller organisations like Wikileaks have not, and some leaks have happened that, arguably, did cause damage, diplomatically if not physically. But the world has changed. Secrets are harder to keep, and once out, harder to control. Governments must move with the times, not lash out when the combination of technology and conscience leave them embarrassed and exposed.

Whistleblowers know that they will probably pay a high price for their act of conscience. It is what makes that act so noble. Who did the outrageous and horrifying treatment of Manning deter? Certainly not Edward Snowden – though he has been forced to choose exile to avoid it. Still they take a gulp, square their shoulders, breathe deeply, and blow the whistle, because they believe that what they are doing is important enough to merit that level of sacrifice.

I, for one, am glad that there are still such people around.

Private Manning. Photograph: Getty Images
Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war