I remember reading an excerpt from Victor Hugo's famous novel in a high-school class in Carman, Manitoba. I came home and told my mother about this story of a man who had been given a long prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Of course, that turned out not to be news to my mother. Virtually everyone in her generation had heard of that story out of Les Miserables.
I thought then that that treatment of Jean Valjean was barbaric and that our society (and I saw Canada and the United States as being pretty much the same in this respect) had moved beyond those barbaric ways.
Maybe it had. But it is back to those ways now.
Consider the case of Bradley Manning, the young private who is being courtmartialed for leaking documents to Wikileaks. Many see him as a hero. Others see him as a villain. But the case that is hard to make, which, unfortunately, the judge in the case, Colonel Denise Lind, has allowed to go forward, is that he was aiding the enemy. If convicted, he could face life in prison. This is after waiting almost 3 years in military prison before going on trial. During that whole time, he was in solitary confinement. For much of the time in his cell, he was required to be naked.
How does life in prison square with past treatments of military personnel who have leaked secrets? Here's what Matthew Feeney says:
The last time a member of the military was found guilty of aiding the enemy by leaking information to the press was in 1863, when Private Henry Vanderwater was found guilty of leaking information to a newspaper based in Richmond, Virginia. For that crime of aiding the enemy, Private Vanderwater was sentenced to three months hard labor."
My own view of Manning is more nuanced than that he is a straight hero. He took risks with information that could have put relatively innocent people in harm's way. I do think, though, that given his intentions, which had nothing to do with aiding the enemy and everything to do with blowing the whistle on pretty creepy actions by the U.S. military, he has served enough hard time already.
That's why, even though I don't agree with every little particular of the statement that will soon likely appear in an ad in the New York Times, I will be donating by $100 and getting my name associated with it.