My latest for Al Jazeera English is on the Chelsea Manning verdict:
In 2011, President Obama gave a statement to the press when questioned by a Manning sympathiser. “We are a nation of laws,” he said. “We don’t let individuals make decisions about how the law operates. [Manning] broke the law.”
Notably, “we are a nation of laws” is the same initial response Obama gave in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. The reminder that we are a nation of laws serves to keep us from asking whether we are a nation of justice.
When institutions collapse, we are left with ideals. Law is an institution; justice is an ideal. But the media present the leaks largely as a question of allegiance – a battle between those who defend government and those who seek to destroy it.
“Tribal feelings determine how you view the significance of Edward Snowden’s revelations,” writes journalist Marc Ambinder, arguing that we cannot help but “side with the side we identify with: civil libertarians, journalism, or with the intelligence community, with policy-makers.”
There is a category left out of that equation: citizens. Manning reacted to war crimes as a citizen seeking reconciliation between law and justice. She wanted the American government to follow its own legal and moral precepts.
This is not an extreme position, nor is it a particularly libertarian one. It asks that those who abuse their power be held accountable. It asks that institutions – like the government and the military – behave as moral entities and take responsibility for the actions of their cruelest, most incompetent members.
But when institutions are eroding from within, far more offensive is the person who brings this fact to light. Manning’s 35-year sentence is more than that of other perceived enemies of the state, including John Walker Lindh, who received 20 years after fighting alongside the Taliban.
Manning’s sentence is a warning for those who pursue justice in a nation of laws.
Read the full article, Justice in a ‘Nation of Laws’: The Manning verdict, at Al Jazeera English.