The Humanism of Bradley Manning

If Bradley Manning has been the source of the documents published by WikiLeaks, then now at least we have some crucial insight into his motivation. In the chat logs of him and Adrian Lamo published recently by Wired there are two passages that show at the heart of Bradley Manning a tremendous morality and humanism.

I don’t want to go into the despair and loneliness documented in these logs. It has a deeply voyeuristic air to read them, and at times I asked myself why I didn’t stop. There is something profoundly disturbing in witnessing the intimate details of a human being, especially when one can be sure they were not meant for a sensationalist public. Reading the logs, or, for that matter, watching the documentaries by PBS Frontline and The Guardian, has an air of soul pornography. True, they were not written for an audience to read whereas the documentaries disclose intimate details exactly with the audience in mind. But this doesn’t take into account the voyeuristic tendencies on the side of the public that usually go unmentioned. [1] So reading (and writing about) the logs should come with some reasons.

In the chat logs it’s mostly Bradley Manning talking. With the despair and urgency in his voice, I’m not so sure that Adrian Lamo can justifiably be accused of entrapping him. Granted, in the chats he offered (and later broke) confidentiality, but enticing Manning to confess something seems difficult to prove given Bradley Manning’s urgent need and wish to talk to somebody. With the newly published parts of the chat logs, I even come to have some sympathies for Wired’s decision in 2010 not to publish the whole logs. [2] The details are often too intimate. But it is exactly in these very passages that we find two that were missing in 2010 that shed light on the humanity and morality of Bradley Manning. They are pretty remarkable.

The first passage is this [3]: 

(03:13:31 PM) bradass87: it was unreal… i mean, i’ve identified bodies before… its rare to do so, but usually its just some nobody
(03:13:48 PM) bradass87: it humanized the whole thing… re-sensitized me
(03:15:38 PM) bradass87: i dont know… im just, weird i guess
(03:15:49 PM) bradass87: i cant separate myself from others
(03:16:12 PM) bradass87: i feel connected to everybody… like they were distant family
(03:16:24 PM) bradass87: i… care?
(03:17:27 PM) bradass87: <– sums it up for me
(03:18:17 PM) bradass87: i probably shouldn’t have read sagan, feynman, and so many intellectual authors last summer…
(03:21:11 PM) bradass87: >sigh<

It is important to listen what Bradley Manning is telling here. Remember, this wasn’t meant to be read by the public, so we may have some confidence that it is pretty authentic : There is a connection between people. And this connection is so very strong that he feels unable to sever it. Other people are he himself, they are family, they are part of him. He cannot close his eyes when somebody else suffers because this other person’s suffering becomes his own. This connection to every living being is the main reason why we act at all – in the name of others, on behalf of others, for the betterment even in the face of the worst circumstances. Feeling being a part means that it is impossible for such a person to look away or to shut herself down. It would mean to amputate all of our soul limbs that make us who we are. Looking away in order to fend off those “foreign” sufferings comes to force one into being a robot or somebody entirely different. Feeling being a part of means just that – being a part of something. Otherwise you are not even a person.

We admire this sentiment in all people, not just in prominent figures like Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and many others. This is a common trait, not a private peculiarity. It happens all over the world. It makes us human. And as we know how this urge (and not one’s private problems) leads and forces people to act in order to better the situations of others, we can safely assume the same urge in Bradley Manning. He couldn’t help to be human. He wasn’t able to shut down.

The second passage is a brief remark and link he gives:

(03:24:10 PM) bradass87: we’re human… and we’re killing ourselves… and no-one seems to see that… and it bothers me
(03:24:26 PM) bradass87: apathy
(03:25:28 PM) bradass87: apathy is far worse than the active participation
(03:26:23 PM) bradass87: >hug<
(03:29:31 PM) bradass87: Elie Wiesel summed it up pretty well for me… though his story is much much more important that mine

The link leads to an interview by Noble Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel and Soledad O’Brien.

Elie Wiesel who survived the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald whereas his family was extinguished, has devoted his entire life to the commemoration of the dead and the education of the living. In this short interview he discusses why nobody had acted to stop the gasification of the European Jews, especially as the Allies knew about the concentration camps and the industrialized mass-murder :

Soledad O’Brien : These genocides do not start with just, one day, [finger snipping] “this!”, they start with a trickle and eventually the flood gates open. Why do people not listen? What are the signs we missed?
Elie Wiesel : Listen, my dear Soledad, what I’m going to tell you is going to hurt […] Hungarian Jews were the last. Two weeks before D-Day, two weeks before D-Day, we Jews in Hungary in our Ghetto, we didn’t know about Auschwitz. Washington knew, the Vatican knew, Switzerland knew, everyone who should have known knew, and they didn’t warn us. I can tell you if Churchill or Roosevelt had gone on the radio – and we could have heard, we listened to radio clandestinely  –  “Jews in Hungary, don’t go to the railway station!”, I can tell you 50 % if not more of my community would have been saved. In the mountains there were Christians ready to help us. Our maid, she sneaked into the Ghetto, just … when the transports began … pleading with my father “I have a hut, in the mountains. Leave! I’ll take care of you.” The Russian Army was, I think, I don’t know, 30 kilometres away. But we didn’t know. Had we known … I describe it in Night … when we came to Auschwitz, and we saw the name “Auschwitz” in the railway station, we didn’t know what it meant. The world was silent ! 600 to 800 thousand … Eichmann came to [??] in 1944, in May. And in six weeks 10.000 men, women and children were killed, were gassed, and burnt every day, every night. And the world was silent. So my story [??] was not entirely true. There was a war going on and America behaved valiantly, its soldiers were great heroes. D-Day, after all, what America has lost … utmost [??] I think, one of the noblest moments in the American history is to come to Europe’s help and rescue, to help it get back its liberty, its freedom. […] but when it came to help the Jews then, the world was silent. So therefore I … when I am angry I am angry at those who knew and didn’t warn us.
Soledad O’Brien : A massive failure of leadership.
Elie Wiesel : Absolutely!
Soledad O’Brien : You’re a community where …. and every step it’s …. well, it’ll be OK …well, will it be? … they’ll never be doing this … but this will be … it’s not so bad, it could be worse. At what point do we, as the outsiders to some of the worst genocides and tragedies that are happening now … how do we get involved? Because, the leadership has access to that information sometimes but there is a mass that does not.
Elie Wiesel : Number 1: Unmask evil ! Name it where it is and when it is. And don’t give evil a second chance. Our only possibility of hope would be then to immediately to fight it ! Don’t wait until it becomes a huge massacre. Because there are, it’s true, there are forebodings, there are signs everywhere. That is why we could have saved people from Rwanda. And then Cambodia began, a million and 800.000 were killed. It’s true, those Cambodians were Cambodians, but nevertheless, how come we didn’t know? Some people knew. But why did we do nothing? […] So therefore, the moment it begins recognize the beginning and fight. […] The killers wanted to dehumanize the victims and in doing so they dehumanized themselves. The victims died as human beings. And I’ve seen myself … I’ve seen generosity, I’ve seen compassion there, that a person would give his bread to somebody who is hungrier than he. A father who gave his bread to his son, and the son to his father, as in my case. I did, my father … we gave each other whatever we had. So the enemy did not succeed in robbing us of our humanity.

Later in the interview:

Elie Wiesel : When someone suffers, and I know about it, and I remain indifferent, I condemn myself.
Soledad O’Brien : But you also challenge the indifference of others who are not survivors of any of the above [aforementioned genocides], people like me and other “civilians” who are just working and doing and living in prosperity who can have our bread and drink our wine … why … what’s our role too?
Elie Wiesel : To learn from us – with us and from us. That indifference is never an option. It’s never the beginning of a process, it is the end of process. Indifference we have seen during the war in Auschwitz, when a person became what we called, in Auschwitz, a Muselmann, for reasons that have nothing to do with actuality. A person would lie down, sit down, lie down, covered with a blanket, feeling nothing, no hunger, no thirst, no fear, no pain … the person was dead but didn’t know it. He was a victim of indifference. And therefore I say : Ultimate indifference is the worst that can happen to a human being.

We have to fight evil. We are not allowed to give it a second chance. And most important (a lesson learned from the silence of the Allies) – as soon as one knows it, one has to go public, in order that something can be done and in order that we not become accomplices to it.

Given the urge and the tremendous humanity of Elie Wiesel’s words, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that they may have been a main reason or justification for Bradley Manning. This doesn’t mean that he saw himself as a hero. It rather means that these words may have urged him to do what he wasn’t able to resist anyway. These words just give the reason why Bradley Manning couldn’t wait but had to act. Not only because he was connected. But because being connected and doing nothing means to become guilty. The guilt that consists in looking away seems to have been too heavy a prospect, especially as personal experiences had shown him how fragile human souls are, how easily they can be devastated and broken, and how commonly it happens as the strong like to prey on the weak. There is an urgency in Bradley Manning’s morality that makes one choke. He gives us a lot to think about. It is this sphere of morality and humanism, not his personal conflicts and woe, that should be the centre of our interest. Otherwise we come to treat morality as just another form of entertainment.


[1] Soul pornography relies on peeping into the intimacies of a person the disclosure of which trashes the person in this very moment. We don’t find it solely on Big Brother, it increasingly occurs in seemingly left-leaning, progressive areas as well. When in 2009 during the Iranian Green Revolution Neda Agha-Soltan’s dying was captured on mobile phones, this depiction of her agony was not to console her or to help her but to use it to gain shocking images to rally support for a revolution. It was a reckless exploitation that trashed her as a person in the moment of her dying. The rallying cry that this was done in order to honour her death only added insult to injury. You don’t honour the dying or the death of a person by filming her excruciating pain. The most you achieve with that is to gain some fame at a film festival for “candour in journalism”. Likewise when the documentaries by PBS Frontline and The Guardian used Bradley Manning’s personal conflicts as an explanation for his alleged activities they not only pathologized him. The leaking becomes a vehicle to highlight the far more “interesting” stuff of his sexuality, pathologies, troubles. The question why he (allegedly) leaked the documents at all becomes just another way to peep into the intimate world of his person. (There are, of course, further reasons for the media’s pathologizing of Bradley Manning. You may read on that here.)
[2] An indepth discussion of the publication history, covering Wired’s editorial positions and its critics, plus an annotated version of the newly published logs by WL Central can be found in their post 2011-07–16: WIRED Magazine: Disclosure and Cover-Ups in the Lamo-Manning Chat Logs
[3]  The underline in the first two lines is in the original from Wired. It signals that this part has already been published in 2010, while the passages without underline are newly published.


Thanks to @Livable4All for comments on an earlier version.


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