Why is the United States torturing Private Manning?

March 10, 2011|By Ron Smith

Ten months after his arrest on charges of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is systematically being stripped of his humanness by his warders at the brig inside the Marine base at Quantico, Va.

Not yet tried for — much less convicted of — crimes against the state, Private Manning is forced to endure punishment that certainly fits the definition of torture. He is being held in solitary confinement in a tiny cell 23 hours a day, allowed no exercise other than walking around dragging his ankle shackles during the 24th hour.

Every five minutes during waking hours, he must answer the question, "Are you OK?" If his hands aren't outside his blanket while sleeping, or if his head is turned toward the wall, the young soldier is awakened.

The result is that Private Manning is under more or less constant interrogation, a tactic routinely employed by the notorious NKVD, the secret police of Lenin and Stalin, on Soviet dissidents in the basement of Moscow's Lubyanka prison.

To top it off, this week it was revealed that Private Manning is now forced into prolonged nudity, having not only to sleep naked but to stand for inspection outside his cell in the morning without clothing, and therefore without any shred of dignity.

Brig officials confirmed this new twist to The New York Times, saying the forced nudity is being done "as a precautionary measure to prevent him from injuring himself."

We can be pretty sure that's not the actual motive, since Bradley Manning is not under suicide watch, the imposition of which would require the endorsement of mental health professionals.

The real goal is to break the man's spirit. It is to dehumanize him. It is to ruin his health, not to protect it.

His supporters say he leaked details of American war crimes, other violations of law and government deception in order to make Americans aware of the truth. They view him as a national hero, a man worthy of plaudits rather than the treatment he's now enduring and the probable long prison sentence he'll get if convicted.

In discussing this on my show, callers and e-mailers were passionate. One set believes the man to be a traitor and is unsympathetic to concerns about his treatment in custody.

The other side, with which I agree, would like our government to live up to its constant prattling about human rights when it applies to other nations, and to order what's happening at Quantico to stop.

While campaigning for president, Barack Obama said, "Government whistle-blowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal."

We should consider this just another reminder that nothing a politician promises while running for office is likely to be fulfilled.

I believe what's happening to this American citizen is unconstitutional. The Eighth Amendment forbids "cruel and unusual punishment." And there is nothing constitutional about punishing someone for a crime he is not yet proved to have committed. Yet the former constitutional lawyer now living in the White House shows not the slightest sign of intervening in this matter.

There is something else in play that should be spelled out, and which I believe gets to the heart of the matter: What's being done to this 23-year-old soldier has what's called a demonstration effect. Other would-be whistle-blowers will be able to see what happens to someone who defies the government.

In fact, as salon.com blogger Glenn Greenwald points out, the bringing of 22 more charges against Private Manning the other day, including one of "aiding the enemy," carries with it the possibility of a death sentence.

"The prosecution theory," writes Mr. Greenwald, "would convert acts of whistle blowing into a hanging offense."

Our leaders bloviate about human rights and the need for "citizens to hold their own governments accountable." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lectures endlessly on the importance of freedom of speech in the Internet age.

At Quantico, meantime, the field-stripping of a young man's mind continues apace. I'm ashamed, and you should be, too.

Ron Smith's column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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