Twenty-four-year-old Private First Class Bradley Manning must be the loneliest man in America.
Accused of funneling to WikiLeaks a vast cache of diplomatic documents — as well as the video of an Apache helicopter machine-gunning civilians and a Reuters correspondent over Baghdad — Manning is a prisoner of conscience without a constituency.
If a Republican were in the White House, at least some members of the Democratic establishment would express vague sympathy for Manning, condemning, no doubt, the leaks during wartime, but spotlighting the importance of his revelations. The activist base and what's left of the gutsy media would embrace Manning.
But with a tight election against the loathsome Mitt Romney and the right-wing Congressional Republican radicals in motion, discretion tempered with passive hypocrisy commands the order of the day.
Manning's military trial on more than 30 charges — including "aiding the enemy" — starts next February. Disturbingly, President Barack Obama has already declared Manning guilty. Trumping Obama, former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee called for Manning's execution, a theoretical possibility.
If there are any soft and mushy ideas about the presumption of innocence during our perpetual war for perpetual peace, then the Manning case obliterates them.
WikiLeaks was the star of the show that Manning triggered. Front-page stories drove home the growing sense that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were ill conceived. This enraged Washington and made WikiLeaks impresario Julian Assange a marked man.
With Swedish rape charges dogging him, Assange is trapped in a no-man's-land. Those charges — reasonably seen as prosecution by proxy, stage-managed by the United States — may eventually result in Assange's capture.
In the meantime, Manning and Assange may share headlines, but it's an unequal celebrity. Assange commands an image, a support network more potent than Manning's. Young, gay, and from a dysfunctional family, Manning was a study in isolation even before his arrest.
Other whistleblowers have become pop icons. Jeffrey Wigand, the conscience-racked tobacco executive who in 1996 turned state's evidence on 60 Minutes to reveal the secrets of addictive cigarette manufacture, was able to substitute the scorn of former colleagues with the applause of anti-smoking advocates. Russell Crowe played Wigand in a movie based on his exposé.
Twenty-five years earlier, Daniel Ellsberg set a standard for moral courage when he supplied first the New York Times, then the Washington Post, and finally the Boston Globe with the top-secret, government-commissioned Pentagon Papers. The papers documented the political deceit that marbled the Vietnam War and exposed the misjudgment that prolonged the wrenching conflict. Ellsberg became a hero to like-minded defense intellectuals who shared his convictions but lacked his guts.
Wigand received death threats. And Ellsberg risked more than he may have realized: Ellsberg's trial, on charges similar to Manning's, ended in a mistrial after a plot to seriously injure or kill him surfaced amid the fallout from Watergate.
Manning's fate, however, was direct and brutal. The government tried to break him, detaining Manning, subjecting him to sleep depravation, and forcing him to remain naked, or nearly so, for 24 hours a day. In the words of law professors from Yale and Harvard, these conditions were "degrading and inhumane," "illegal and immoral."
The horror of Manning's torture is over, but his political isolation continues. This almost-forgotten man awaits trial for releasing over-classified documents that resulted in no deaths or injuries but did lay bare the folly of America's National Security State. Remember him. The odds of a fair trial are slim. Manning needs friends.