Chelsea Manning, a Modern Antigone

Good morning, here I discuss a parallel between Chelsea Manning and Sophocles’ Antigone as a response to Obama’s commutation.

I’ve been working with this idea to write a paper for my master’s.  First with the facts: Manning was convicted by court martial in 2013 for leaking classified information to the site Wikileaks.  The leaks included video of the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike, diplomatic cables, and military documents describing life at Guantanamo Bay among others.  Manning was held guilty of violating the Espionage Act (among other crimes) and held in prison in Fort Leavenworth, KS.  On August 22, 2013 Manning’s attorney released a statement declaring Manning’s desire to be known as “Chelsea” and a female.  Manning was diagnosed with gender dysphoria and began hormone treatments though she has not yet undergone surgery.  Manning has experienced a difficult time in an all male prison which consisted of two suicide attempts. Former President Obama commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning on January 17, 2017 just days before the inauguration of President Trump.  Manning is slated for release on May 17, 2017.

FILE PHOTO --  People hold signs calling for the release of imprisoned wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning while marching in a gay pride parade in San Francisco, California

Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters

The public response to Manning and her commutation has been fiercely contentious.  Private donations to a “welcome home” fund generated more than $40K in its first 24 hours.  However, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan stated “President Obama now leaves in place a dangerous precedent that those who compromise national security won’t be held accountable for their crimes.”

This is a complicated issue and I’m afraid that many of the ancillary issues are pulling a shroud over the most important issues.  The leaks have been criticized as dangerous to national security but these claims have been refuted elsewhere with Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates stating:

The fact is governments deal with the United States because its in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us and not because they believe we can keep secrets,” he said. “Some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially …. the indispensable nation.

So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another. Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.

How one feels about the leaks is probably predetermined by how they feel about government transparency generally which I will table for now.  However, I’d like to mention the Baghdad airstrike video and what it reveals about how airstrikes were conducted.  This video demonstrated an oversight in which cameras were mistaken for weapons, in addition to the fact that the operators whose voices can be heard are making light of what is going on.  At one point they are heard laughing after bullets are being fired.  This is atrocious behavior which is not representative of the American military.  What is damaging about this video and a possible justification for keeping it hidden is that it can be used as a recruitment tool for those who wish to harm the US and its allies.  Then again, perhaps putting this content in the open provides an opportunity to retrain operators to be more careful, maintain their professionalism and for official parties to own up to mistakes, apologize and promise to do better going forward.

Back to Manning.  Her ordeal has gendered a great deal of attention among the LGBTQ community and my concern is would the public be as interested in the Manning case if she were not part of a disenfranchised minority?  I fully support that being trans is a minority that warrants special protections in the law but does this fact alone justify the commutation and the outpouring of public support?  In justifying the commutation the official word has been that Manning was naive and disillusioned when the leaks were made and that the individual has suffered enough in an all male prison population.  But plenty of people languish in prisons and I think a reevaluation release criteria should be considered.

This perhaps sets a dangerous legal precedent to paraphrase Speaker Ryan.  The consequence could be that the legal systems in place lose their power to dissuade.  Writing about effective punishments, Michel Foucault wrote “The laws must be inexorable, those who execute them inflexible.”  Knowing there is a possibility of receiving a similar commutation (and perhaps appealing to public sentiment by embracing the banner of a protected minority (not by any means to suggest that Manning has done so)) may encourage the next leaker to break the law.

While researching Antigone I drew a distinction between Creon seeking to uphold the law as a matter of maintaining civil order and Antigone as representative of the conditions in which suspending the law is justified in honor of a higher authority (of which you can be flexible in your definitions as divine, constitutional or otherwise) or briefly in this case as “humanitarian” concerns.  Obviously in Greek tragedy the trajectory of plot is pointing readers in only one direction: sympathy towards Antigone and the humanitarian option.

Antigone has been used in classrooms to demonstrate to students when civil disobedience is appropriate but I’d like to draw another conclusion.  Perhaps what Obama’s commutation of Manning means is that we are learning the lessons of Greek tragedy to suspend the law in favor of humanitarian concerns.  Obama as a politician has little to lose or gain from such action.  Anyone claiming that this action sets a precedent forgets that commutations are isolated incidents contingent upon the Commander in Chief.  Trump’s lashing out at Manning (and Obama, of course) communicates that this is not to become a pattern.  Whether or not one thinks of Antigone or Manning as a “traitor” depends upon poor partisan politics.  Eventually we need to move to higher authority.  I think that in this case the commutation was justified.  The laws were made for the people, not the people for the laws, we should suspend them on a case by case basis given sufficient extenuating circumstances.

take care,


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