[Bradley] Manning is getting far worse treatment than Timothy McVeigh, Jared Loughner, or your run-of-the-mill serial killer. It’s important to remember here that Manning didn’t covertly leak classified information to a foreign enemy. He leaked classified information to a website knowing that all of it would eventually be published. That’s an important difference. Manning knew that the U.S. government would know what information was leaked, and that it would know who would have access to the leaked information (everyone). The U.S. government has also conceded that it’s unlikely Manning’s leaks did any substantial harm.
That’s a much less serious offense than that of, say, Aldrich Ames, who secretly turned classified information over to a hostile nation, and whose treachery resulted in the deaths of CIA assets. Moreover, the government didn’t know the extent of the information Ames had sold, making the actual harm quite a bit worse. Yet Manning is also getting far worse treatment than Ames ever got.
So why is that? Here’s my guess: McVeigh, Loughner, and Ames merely killed people, or caused people to be killed. Their transgressions were despicable, but they didn’t splash any embarrassment back on the government itself (although you could argue that Ames embarrassed the government to some degree, at least in that it took so long for him to be discovered). Manning, on the other hand, embarrassed the government. In the community of people who believe government to be the noblest, most honorable, most vaunted possible calling, that’s a far worse offense. It’s probably the worst offense.
Sure, Manning has committed a few incidental crimes, but the real crime — the one that earned the degrading treatment — is making the government look foolish. For that, an American citizen gets solitary confinement, hours of forced nudity, and in all likelihood prison for the rest of his life; he’s lucky he isn’t getting death, given the charges. Compare with Jacob Levy at Bleeding Heart Libertarians:
I propose to treat the state as a morally contingent form of social organization that is nonetheless pervasive in the world we inhabit and in any world we can reasonably imagine in the medium-term future.
If we do so, one consequence is that we should view state officials as wielding a great deal of power in our social world that is probably not justified all the way down. States did not come about by individualist contractualist consent; they are not the institutional form of morally foundational nations; religious, hereditary, and customary forms of legitimation may remain sociologically credible in some places but are surely not morally well-grounded accounts of the justifications for the organized use of violence. Yet states are such well-entrenched features of the political landscape that, if can constrains ought at all, we are probably not morally obligated to abolish the state form in favor of some other form of political organization or in favor of anarchy of any description. We must morally make the best of them, making do with what we have.
In a world filled with states, officeholders… wield power that is not morally legitimated by its origins; the power exists because of morally neutral historical and social accidents. What remains is moral responsibility for what is done with the power.
If only government officials agreed.