On Tuesday, PFC Bradley Manning was found guilty on 19 of 21 counts by a U.S. Army Court Martial. Manning was arrested in May 2011, after he leaked a massive amount of sensitive government documents to WikiLeaks. His conviction includes five counts of espionage. Although none of the individual convictions carries a life sentence, the 25-year-old Manning may end up spending the rest of his life behind bars.
Journalists across the country are breathing a sigh of relief that Manning was acquitted on the charge of aiding the enemy. The prosecution's novel theory was that, since the documents were posted on the Internet, al Qaeda operatives inevitably got their hands on them. If Manning had been convicted on that count, reporters and their sources would have been looking over their shoulders every time sensitive military, intelligence or diplomatic information went into a newspaper, magazine, webpage or blog.
Manning has many supporters, who see him as a whistle-blower, or even as a patriot. The same may be said for Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who, as a private contractor for the NSA, did a brain dump of classified information, mostly to a reporter for the Guardian newspaper, a couple of months ago. Snowden then fled to Russia, which is considering granting him asylum.
Snowden contends he'll be tortured and executed as a traitor, if sent home to America. The U.S. Attorney General has denied this and demanded his extradition. AG Holder may be right, but the 30-year-old Snowden, like Manning, is likely to be convicted of some serious stuff and to spend much of his remaining life in prison.
Many members of the Manning/Snowden fan club seem to think that, because they consider these two young men to be heroic whistle-blowers, they should be forgiven their trespasses. This is dead wrong. Practitioners of civil disobedience - which is what these two guys engaged in, if we put the best face on it - historically have recognized that the price of civil disobedience is imprisonment. Why? Because civil disobedience, by definition, is breaking the law. And we who live under the rule of law are not free to decide for ourselves which laws we will obey and which we'll ignore without expecting to be punished.
Henry David Thoreau, who famously wrote "Walden," recognized this when he refused to pay his taxes as a protest of the Mexican War. The tax collector reportedly told Thoreau, "Henry, if you don't pay, I shall have to lock you up pretty soon." Thoreau replied, "As well now as anytime, Sam." Said Sam, "Well, come along then." When Thoreau's friend Ralph Waldo Emerson stopped by the jail and asked him, "Why did you do it," Thoreau retorted, "Why didn't YOU?"
Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King also spent time in jail. In fact, one of MLK's most famous and widely read writings is his "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Addressed primarily to his fellow clergymen, he significantly said, "One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."
If Dr. King got it right, then we can disagree - whether across generational lines or political lines or both - about the right or wrong of what these two young men, Manning and Snowden, did. But we should all agree that they must pay the piper, having danced to his tune.
Hacking, file sharing, and info-dumping are increasingly the province of younger generations as much as older ones, but with more mixed motivations. Beginning with Sean Parker, the founder of the free - and illegal - music file sharing service Napster, one of the fastest growing businesses of all time. The service was eventually shut down by various lawsuits perpetrated by bands such as Metallica, but Parker is nonetheless credited with revolutionizing the music business and being a precursor to Apple's iTunes.
Aaron Swartz is another, possibly more noble example of the free-files-for-all mindset. Swartz, a research fellow at Harvard University in 2011, became the target of federal prosecution when he allegedly downloaded millions of scholarly articles from the digital archive JSTOR by connecting a laptop computer to the university network at MIT. Swartz faced 13 felony charges and up to 35 years in prison for his crimes when he committed suicide in January 2013.
A public outcry followed Swartz's death. Many claimed that MIT acted inappropriately by not speaking up for its alumnus, despite the fact that the university purports to "salute a culture of creative disobedience where students are encouraged to explore secret corners of the campus, commit good-spirited acts of vandalism within informal but broadly-although not fully-understood rules, and resist restrictions that seem arbitrary or capricious" (http://chronicle.com/article/In-Swartz-Case-World-Didnt/140633/). Many mourned the death of a brilliant and distinguished mind, rather than bemoan what many considered to be Swartz's righteous -- or, at the very least, harmless -- actions.
Then there is "Anonymous," the online "hacktivist" organization that exposed the Steubenville, Ohio rapists (two young men who raped an unconscious 16-year-old girl) earlier this year, making knowledge of the crime go viral on the Internet and forcing authorities to take action. The 26-year-old leader of the hacktivist operation, Deric Lostutter, faces possible charges from the government - including aggravated identity theft, computer crimes, and conspiracy - even though many consider his exploits, although technically illegal, both honorable and ethical. Lostutter currently has a legal-defense fund of more than $49,000, all supplied by the public.
Much of the outrage over Lostutter's situation, however, was sparked by the fact that although the Steubenville rapists were convicted of only one year and two years, respectively, Lostutter could face up to 10 years in prison if tried and found guilty of hacking crimes.
I think the question here is not only the oft-focused on, does the end justify the means, but also, does the punishment fit the crime? Civil disobedience may come part and parcel with jail time, but when the government is more lenient with its convicted rapists than its activists, I believe we have a problem.