Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Civil Libertarians And The Hills They Choose To Die On

So the Big Story in liberal news over the past couple of weeks was this: Bradley Manning pled guilty to certain of the charges against him:
Pfc. Bradley Manning on Thursday [Feb. 28, 2013] confessed in open court to providing vast archives of military and diplomatic files to the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks, saying that he released the information to help enlighten the public about “what happens and why it happens” and to “spark a debate about foreign policy.”
Appearing before a military judge for more than an hour, Private Manning read a statement recounting how he joined the military, became an intelligence analyst in Iraq, decided that certain files should become known to the American public to prompt a wider debate about foreign policy, downloaded them from a secure computer network and then ultimately uploaded them to WikiLeaks.
Before reading the statement, Private Manning pleaded guilty to 10 criminal counts in connection with the huge amount of material he leaked, which included videos of airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan in which civilians were killed, logs of military incident reports, assessment files of detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and a quarter-million cables from American diplomats stationed around the world.
The Manning case is far from over; his plea last week does not address more serious charges against him, including charges under the Espionage Act. Nonetheless, Manning’s guilty plea set off a certain amount of predictable caterwauling from the usual suspects. Hyperbole Czar Glenn Greenwald lavished praise on Manning, stating:
Daniel Ellberg [sic] is now widely viewed as heroic and noble, and Bradley Manning (as Ellsberg himself has repeatedly said) merits that praise and gratitude every bit as much.
Maybe Mr. Greenwald forgets that Mr. Ellsberg initially was complicit in covering up the lies that were used to justify the Vietnam war; so perhaps he’s better viewed not so much as a noble hero but as a guy who’s gotten really good at atoning for his own sins. Not that there’s anything wrong with spending a lifetime atoning for one’s sins, of course. In any event, Milt Shook’s recent post on succinctly states the contrary view of Bradley Manning, as does this comment from an Army officer responding to Andrew Sullivan’s recent post on whistleblowers.
My own views of Manning are conflicted. I don’t share the view that any disclosure of government information, no matter how secret or how legitimately classified it may be, is a priori a good thing. Nor do I think Manning’s supporters believe that there are no circumstances in which the government can properly withhold certain kinds of information from the public, temporarily, at least; but it’s increasing difficult to determine what kind of information they think the government can withhold, and under what circumstances. As I’ve said before, the issue is not so much whether Manning is a good guy or a bad guy, but how the government classifies information, who gets to make the determination that certain information should be classified, what standards are used in making that determination, and whether there is any meaningful review of those decisions or check on that decision-making authority.
You’ll search in vain for any meaningful discussion of those issues, I’m afraid.
But there’s another thing that bothers me about civil libertarians’ love affair with celebrity defendants like Bradley Manning. Not only do they gloss over the genuinely vexing legal issues and policy questions that arise in a case like his (it’s all about the unassailably virtuous Bradley Manning versus the evil Obama Administration), they all but ignore very real, pressing civil liberties issues right here at home.
While civil libertarians obsess over the military’s – and, by extension, the Obama Administration’s – treatment of Bradley Manning, they are far less concerned about daily abuses committed by state and local authorities, which abuses are, admittedly, less sexy and less well publicized. Still, it would be nice if every so often Mr. Greenwald, et al., paused to reflect on a case like this:
Chicago police terrorized six children in the wrong apartment, demanding at gunpoint that an 11-month-old show his hands, and telling one child, “This is what happens when your grandma sells crack,” the family claims in court.
Lead plaintiffs Charlene and Samuel Holly sued Chicago, police Officer Patrick Kinney and eight John Does in Federal Court, on their own behalves and for their children and children.
The six children were 11 months to 13 years old at the time. Plaintiffs Connie and Michelle Robinson are Charlene Holly's daughters.
[The lawsuit states,] “Defendant Officers John Doe 1-8 burst through the door to the first floor apartment dressed in army fatigues and pointing guns at Charlene and the children. The officers yelled at Charlene and the children to ‘Get on the ground!’ The officers referred to Charlene and the children as ‘m---f---ers’ numerous times.
Or, you know, a story like this that actually made it into the New York Times:
Last year, police officers in New York City stopped and frisked people 685,724 times. Eighty-seven percent of those searches involved blacks or Latinos, many of them young men, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The practice of stop-and-frisk has become increasingly controversial, but what is often absent from the debate are the voices of young people affected by such aggressive policing on a daily basis. To better understand the human impact of this practice, we made this film about Tyquan Brehon, a young man who lives in one of the most heavily policed neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
By his count, before his 18th birthday, he had been unjustifiably stopped by the police more than 60 times. On several occasions, merely because he asked why he had been stopped, he was handcuffed, placed in a cell and detained for hours before being released without charges. These experiences were scarring; Mr. Brehon did whatever he could to avoid the police, often feeling as if he were a prisoner in his home.
And while civil libertarians bemoan the harsh conditions Manning’s faced in prison – a point on which I happen to agree with them, by the way – it’s kind of sad they don’t have much to say about the tens of thousands of prisoners held in solitary confinement in equally harsh conditions in state and federal prisons around the country.
Unfortunately, whether our civil liberties warriors are aware of it or not, there’s a common thread among the non-Bradley Manning stories I’ve highlighted above, and it’s this: The kinds of abuses these stories involve are disproportionately visited upon people of color. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Manning-obsessed civil libertarians are racist, nor does it mean that they don’t care about the civil liberties abuses people of color face on a daily basis. But if you chose to fight your civil liberties battles only in cases where white celebrity defendants like Manning are involved, you shouldn’t be too surprised if you’re having trouble getting traction among those for whom civil rights are just as important as civil liberties.
[Cross-posted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles]


  1. I believe that we agree that Pvt. Manning was in no position, nor skill level nor training to make decisions on documents to release. His decisions sparked debates, but far less on foreign policy than he intended. With the added complication of potentially putting people at risk.

    I disagree that civil libertarians are in support of the virtuous Manning versus the evil Obama. I think that most are really against the evil government of whom Obama is the most visible and easy target. Because these problems are universal and eternal, Obama did not bring them with him nor create them, nor will they leave with him in 4 years.

    I also agree that the civil liberties violations here should be a much bigger issue. I currently blame the democrat party for not fixing what the preceding 6-10 administrations have been slowing screwing up, with a big bump on the 2-4 prior administrations. We have created a para-military police force that uses military tactics and hardware, bullying and immunity to run rough-shod over civilians. I do disagree in part that it is a people of color thing. They are obviously the most targeted group, but it is really a socio-economic thing. The lower you are on the S-E ladder, the more likely you are to be assaulted by law enforcement. Then the lower you are on the S-E ladder and the darker your complexion, your odds get even worse.

  2. "I currently blame the democrat party for not fixing what the preceding 6-10 administrations have been slowing screwing up, with a big bump on the 2-4 prior administrations."

    There is no such thing as a "democrat party". There is a "Democratic National Committee" and a "Democratic Party". Since the dems do NOT CONTROL the HoR, their chances for changing anything by way of legislation are exactly "none".

    "They are obviously the most targeted group, but it is really a socio-economic thing."

    Racism is a "socio-economic" thing.