Democracy is Not A Spectator Sport: Why Chelsea Manning Matters


By Rory Mondshein

“I want people to see the truth, regardless of who they are, because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” – Chelsea Manning

Chelsea Manning is a transgender former soldier and military specialist, who leaked thousands of government documents to show the true cost of war. Unlike many other whistleblowers, however, she received a hefty sentence of 35 years of sequestration in a maximum-security prison. In custody, she was frequently stripped naked, deprived access to medical care (including mental health treatment for gender dysphoria and depression), and harassed by the military.

If President Obama did not grant her clemency, her treatment could have been far worse under the Trump regime. Thankfully, President Obama granted Chelsea Manning clemency in his last week as President of the United States; however, the U.S.’ treatment of whistleblowers is extremely unsettling.

The lack of government transparency–as well as perfunctory punishment of whistleblowers–constitutes a direct threat to our democracy. Democracy, in its traditional form, is rooted in agency. According to human rights theorist James Griffin, agency is rooted in: (1) autonomy to make decisions without coercion; (2) access to basic minimum provisions of resources, including education, to make decisions; and (3) liberty to pursue a worthwhile life.
The United States’ government’s secrecy in the name of public security is not a new phenomenon. However, the government’s practices violate all three of James Griffin’s criteria for agency. The clandestine information limits individual agency, and coerces their decisions by selecting which information they have. This, in turn, limits their ability to make rational choices based on their interests. At the same time, this deprives them of the minimum provisions to make an informed choice, and the liberty to live a worthwhile life by constantly living in a state of war.

Chelsea Manning’s footage symbolises the true cost of war by showing the U.S. army’s indiscriminate killings (including the murder of an unarmed Reuters journalist), and the deprivation of dignity through torture. The footage shows the U.S. military repeatedly violating standards of international law, which include, but are not limited to: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Convention against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the Fourth Geneva Convention. The footage shows the U.S. military’s failure to adhere to customary international law vis-a-vis the distinguishability criterion by attacking unarmed and unidentifiable civilians.

The 72 percent of Americans that supported the Iraq War in 2003 were not privy to their military’s exact practices because the government repeatedly emphasised the national security concern over the tactics used to protect it.

the withheld information allows these crimes to go unpunished. It limits the public’s ability to hold their government accountable, which is a central tenet of democracy. The war practices, themselves, are inhumane, and the repeated efforts to silence and suppress the information is contrary to the transparency needed for a healthy democracy.

However, I would like to focus on another aspect: Chelsea Manning’s treatment in the U.S. prisons.

As previously mentioned, Chelsea Manning was often stripped in the prisons, awoken in her sleep, and deprived of access to adequate medical care. It is reported that a dentist was performing mental health evaluations, despite her documented diagnoses of gender dysphoria and depression.

From a legal, political, and–most importantly–a humanitarian perspective, the U.S. government’s treatment towards Chelsea Manning is appalling. Many, including the United Nations, have spoken out about it because it constitutes a human rights issue. Besides blatantly violating international law–including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–the vituperation violates basic provisions of U.S. law. The domestic violations include the freedom of speech (1st Amendment), freedom of expression (1st Amendment), the right to a fair trial (6th Amendment), the protection against cruel and unusual punishment (8th Amendment), and the Equal Protection Clause (14th Amendment).

The U.S.’ violation of its own principles in its international pursuits constitutes the perfect example of Jacques Derrida’s “autoimmunity,” which refers to governments turning on their own people and principles in the pursuit of national security. The U.S. government is employing tactics that contradict democratic practices in its pursuit of democratic protection and proliferation worldwide. The U.S. government’s failure to practice the values that they preach–including tolerance, transparency, and human rights–shows that its concern lies not with the values themselves but the international adoption of values. It fails to acknowledge that the importance of personhood and dignity are far greater than winning a war on one’s own terms.

The future of human rights will be far bleaker in the Trump era, which has promised to employ a “whatever it takes” method at the expense of personhood. While we cannot change the fact that Trump will be President, it is imperative for the United States to consider the larger implications of punishing and marginalising whistleblowers.

Perhaps paradoxically, the U.S. government was worried about its people discovering the true costs of war through Chelsea Manning’s footage, but, unfortunately, we are seeing it through their treatment of whistleblowers. 

The true costs of war is more than monetary: it is measured by lost opportunities, lost lives, and, as Jacques Derrida would say, the paradoxical loss of freedom in the pursuit of freedom.