David R. Henderson  

Les Miserables

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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."

Interestingly, this is a case that the prosecution is citing.

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.

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CATEGORIES: Economics of Crime

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Ted Levy writes:

Wouldn't that make Obama Javert? I don't see him as having an implacable sense of justice...

It would be nice if they had similar ends, admittedly...

MingoV writes:

Unfortunately, we cannot put the full blame on Obama for Manning's long imprisonment with continual mistreatment. Our nation has been moving in that direction for half a century. Every sensationalized crime got longer prison sentences. The "War on Drugs" generated absurdly long mandatory prison sentences. Possession (not creation) of a single photo classified as child pornography has a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of twenty. A person can rape a child and get a lighter sentence.

The military followed the same trend as the nation. Infractions became crimes with prison terms. The military crackdown on drugs was tougher than the civilian war on drugs. The military also added tough penalties for sexual harassment.

The Obama administration does get the blame for charging leakers with treasonous behavior and pushing for decades of imprisonment. Those actions reflect Obama's belief that crossing him is a major sin.

Ted Levy writes:

Actually, MingoV, while it IS true that there is much blame to go around, the FULL blame for Manning's predicament can be placed on Obama, a man with the ability to fully pardon and thus immediately end, this injustice.

Justice is not like pieces of a pie that must together sum to 100%. Many different people can each be fully responsible for an injustice. Just as two people can each be found fully responsible for a murder, so too can more than one person be fully responsible for an injustice. Obama DOES deserve the full blame. He's simply not the only such person.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ted Levy,
Well put.

Daublin writes:

Ted beat me to it.

People say that Obama is boxed in by bureaucracy and Congress, but this is an open and shut case. He could pardon Manning by writing it down on a napkin during breakfast.

I think we should conclude that Obama is broadly content with what the federal government is doing. He's okay with Guantanamo, he's okay with the grope searches at the airport, he's okay invading and bombing Pakistan, he's fine with the marijuana busts.

Obama feels like he is part of the world's elite. People like Bradley Manning, much less random pot heads in California, are simply not in the same class. These aren't people that are going to clink cocktails with the Obamas. They don't even know people who know people who will clink cocktails with the Obamas.

Reardon writes:

"pretty creepy" seems an understatement to me, given that several incidents of wanton murder fall under the actions described...

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