Bradley Manning, the alleged source of the WikiLeaks cable, has gotten a lot of press coverage — and little help. Writing about his situation has begun to feel futile, and I’m starting to feel at a loss about what is to be done. Bradley Manning is still being held in cruel and inappropriate conditions. He is forced to remain in front of his guards in the nude, ostensibly to prevent him from using his clothes in a suicide attempt. If he rolls over in his sleep and the guards cannot easily see him from outside the cell, they enter and shake him awake, so he rarely sleeps through the night. He is held in solitary confinement and may only leave his cell for an hour of exercise per day. His exercise, too, is solitary; he is allowed to walk in circles in a different, larger room, and the moment he stops pacing, he is returned to his cell.
For once I can’t complain that an issue I care about hasn’t gotten sufficient coverage. Bradley Manning’s treatment has been the subject of extensive coverage in national newspapers and even the notoriously vapid cycle of 24-hour TV news. At a press conference near the beginning of March, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley labeled Manning’s treatment “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.” Obama dismissed the concerns and then dismissed Crowley a few days later. Nothing has changed.
It is easier to attribute government cruelty to gridlock and indifference when I think of the big, difficult questions like immigration reform and Iraq and Afghanistan. Most legislation involves complex systems of regulations and incentives. Although I have broad preferences, I don’t have the expertise to make recommendations at the nitty-gritty level of actual policy. But in this situation, what I want is so simple and easy.
I want an American citizen, who has not been convicted of a crime, to be permitted to sleep through the night. I want him to have the dignity of being clothed. I want him to be allowed periods of movement and human contact, a respite from the profound isolation of solitary confinement.
But what can I do to achieve it? I can’t imagine that this issue will spark a serious primary challenge to Obama. My conservative friends (somewhat suspiciously) have suggested I can’t vote for Obama in good conscience after he has explicitly endorsed this treatment. But I can’t mortgage all the other issues I care about to make an empty protest vote on one issue. And I won’t allow myself the empty self-righteousness of withdrawing from political engagement, just so I can boast of keeping my hands clean, never voting for a candidate who endorses grave evils. Both parties are shamelessly complicit.
Bradley Manning’s situation isn’t unique; our prison system is the blackest mark against us. The United States has the highest number of prisoners of any nation in the world. Nearly one in every 100 U.S. residents is incarcerated. If you include the thousands of people on parole, on probation or in prison awaiting trial, the figure jumps to one in every 32 Americans. Many of these prisoners are kept in degrading and punishing conditions just like Bradley Manning, without the benefit of the media attention he has received. Just like Manning, these prisoners may be deliberately mistreated in the hopes of coercing a confession that will implicate them or bring other possible co-conspirators behind bars. The horror of the American prison system is overwhelming and paralyzing. Reform is desperately needed, but where should I direct my efforts when I can’t even help protect one man from its abuses?
For now, the best I’ve come up with is donating to single-issue advocacy groups like The Innocence Project, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union and joining them in advocacy. I try to keep raising the issue in any forum I can, wherever I’ve got an audience. But I could write every single one of my News op-eds about Manning and the prison system from now until graduation and achieve nothing. It’s hard to have faith in my government when I’m so painfully incapable of curbing its abuses.
Leah Libresco is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.