After years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, examining the conditions of Pfc. Bradley Manning's confinement at Quantico, Va., could be the first step in a process of national reconciliation. President Obama could begin that process now, with a simple act of compassion. He could direct the Department of Defense to find a better way to safeguard Private Manning while he awaits trial. The President will not be able to risk lifting the Prevention of Injury (POI) watch Private Manning is being subjected to, but he can and should make the POI watch more humane.
Sooner or later, Americans do find ways to reconcile their differences. For me, reconciliation after the Vietnam War came with the dedication of Maya Ying Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a sad, retiring monument to the fallen of a sad war. I've always felt the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was a more fitting conclusion to the Vietnam War experience than America's victory in the Gulf War, a victory that, according to George H. W. Bush, "kicked the Vietnam syndrome" and, it turns out, restored the confidence America needed to undertake further adventures -- adventures Private Manning is accused of trying to thwart by stealing classified documents.
In the case of Private Manning, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind to a close, Americans have a chance to start reconciling our differences over at least one aspect of the conduct of those wars: our treatment of prisoners of war and captive "enemies" of all kinds.
We have a chance to kick the torture syndrome.
The Department of Defense's treatment of Private Manning has been opposed by the left for a long time -- especially by Glenn Greenwald and by bloggers at Jane Hamsher's Firedoglake -- but now Private Manning's physical and mental health, and the conditions under which he is being held at Quantico, have begun to concern more Americans. It has become clear that, whatever the reasons, those conditions include sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and intentional humiliation. They are conditions that have been denounced as "stupid" by the Department of State's top spokesman, P.J. Crowley, at the cost of his job.
There is something disturbing about seeing the force of the United States government directed against a single individual, in this case a 23-year-old soldier.
Understandably, the Obama administraton is angry at Private Manning. They believe he leaked embarrassing details about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and about State Department operations around the globe. Just as understandably, they would like him to implicate WikiLeaks -- the site that first published the documents they claim Private Manning stole -- in the theft of the documents. But does that anger and that desire to get at the publishers of the documents justify treating Private Manning in a way that many are beginning to describe as torture?
Facts about Private Manning's life at the brig are hard to come by. It's not clear if Private Manning is still being interrogated, or if he's just waiting for his trial. The military insists that Private Manning is being treated the same as any prisoner in his circumstances would be -- whatever that means -- and President Obama is content to take their word for it. But Private Manning and his lawyer dispute that claim. They say Private Manning is being abused and punished under the guise of protecting him.
Most of the information we have about Private Manning's confinement comes from him and his lawyer, David Coombs, and, to be fair, there are contradictions in their story. On the one hand, Mr. Coombs says Private Manning sleeps naked in a cold cell; on the other hand he says the brig has given Private Manning a blanket he can't tear. And Private Manning admits that, out of frustration with his living conditions, he has become upset, yelled and pulled his hair.
To be even more fair, the military has responded -- in a way -- to criticism from Private Manning's supporters. When Private Manning complained about having to sleep naked and stand inspection every morning in the nude, the brig gave him a rough garment to wear. (But then the Marine guards proceeded to mock and humiliate him by calling the garment a "smock.")
This much is clear. Private Manning has been held in solitary confinement since he arrived at the Quantico brig on July 29, 2010.
For 23 hours a day, Private Manning sits in his cell. The guards check on him every five minutes by asking him if he is "okay." He is required to respond. At night, if the guards can't see him clearly, because he has a blanket over his head or he is curled up, facing the wall, they wake him to make sure he is unharmed, forcing him to choose between sleeping without covers or not sleeping at all. He eats all of his meals in his cell. He is not allowed to exercise in his cell, and he only gets one hour of exercise in a closed room outside of his cell each day.
Considering the torture and abuse of prisoners by the U.S military at Abu Ghraib -- where the guards assisted interrogaters by softening the prisoners up -- it's not unreasonable for people concerned with civil liberties to demand an objective review of the way Private Manning is being treated. And it makes sense to wonder why the military is stonewalling attempts by members of Congress to get access to the brig.
On the other hand, it was the U.S. Military itself that uncovered and publicized the crimes at Abu Ghraib. And no one would dispute that it's reasonable for the military and the Obama administration to make Private Manning's safety during his pre-trial confinement a top priority.
Private Manning, his lawyer, and his supporters all want the military to lift the POI watch Private Bradley is living under. His lawyer cites brig psychiatrists who say there is no mental health reason for keeping Private Bradley under POI. But is such a demand realistic?
Preventing injury to Private Manning is a political issue. Simply put, the President can't afford to take the chance -- no matter how remote -- that Private Manning might come to harm.
There is plenty of reason to believe that someone might try to hurt Private Manning if they got the chance. And, while there may be no good reason to believe he would harm himself, his suicide, if it did happen, would deal a devastating blow to the reputation of the military and the Obama administration. It would undoubtedly lead to investigations, conspiracy theories, and attacks on the administration from all sides.
Political suicides are rare, but there have been enough of them to give President Obama pause. The suicides of the monk Thích Quảng Đức in Saigon and the Quaker Norman Morrison outside the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., for example, had a profound impact on the Vietnam War.
The risk of an individual throwing his body into a war machine to gum up its works may be something psychiatrists are less qualified to assess than politicians are. The Obama administration has no desire to see the young soldier who embarrassed them by showing that they couldn't protect their secrets embarrass them further by killing himself while in their custody. Forget about lifting that POI watch.
But let's make sure the watch is as humane as it can be.
There is no reason why the conditions of Private Manning's POI watch can't be modified to eliminate sleep deprivation and humiliation. And certainly his jailers can find a safe way to relieve the isolation of Private Manning's solitary confinement, including letting him exercise in his cell and get some sunlight and fresh air.
The brig needs to deliver Private Manning for trial unharmed physically -- and unharmed mentally as well. There is no justification for destroying Private Manning in the course of protecting him. If the idea is to prevent Private Manning from harming himself, shouldn't the military consider the fact that loss, hopelessness and isolation are all on the CDC's list of risk factors for suicide?
If he is convicted, Private Manning, whose motive for taking on the United States government may have been to stop killing and torture, will probably end up in Leavenworth, where, in further irony, he will join William Calley, Hasan Akbar and Charles Graner, a guard convicted of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
Maximum security prisons like Leavenworth subject some dangerous prisoners -- those who have attacked other prisoners or guards, for example -- to solitary confinement with the goal of conditioning them so that they can be returned to the general population. Private Manning, who no one has suggested is a danger to anyone else, will have done that much time in solitary before he ever comes to trial.
All of us, from the left and from the right as well, should demand that President Obama act now. He should direct the military to immediately cooperate with the Congress. He should direct the Department of Defense to devise humane ways to prevent injury to Private Manning while he awaits trial. If the Department of Defense can't do that, he should get them the advice of experts who can.
Wouldn't America be better off if the debate about Private Manning's pre-trial confinement could be shifted from whether he is being tortured to whether the treatment he is getting is a little too kind? Is there a society on earth that doesn't admire empathy, compassion and mercy?
No matter what we believe about America's role in the world, no matter what we believe about America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no matter how much or how little damage we believe Private Manning may have done, if we cannot reconcile our differences over something as simple as the pre-trial treatment of Private Manning, a young man whose life is effectively over, we may not be able to reconcile our differences at all.