On Assange, Manning, and the external and inner demons they face.
Amsterdam, Noord-Holland, The Netherlands.
Yesterday I saw the documentary “We Steal Secrets” about the rise and fall of Wikileaks and Julian Assange. I found it a fascinating story. It is a pretty clear example of the battle for truth and justice that goes on in the outside world and inside all of us.
Assange is a brilliant hacker. And he strives for peace and transparency. His way is to fight what he perceives as the biggest demons in the world: governments and especially their most secretive institutions and organizations. At the beginning of his ‘career’ as a hacking activist he infiltrates the computers of NASA. “You talk of times of peace for all, then you prepare for war” appeared on the computer screens right before the launch of the Challenger space shuttle.
Later Assange comes up with Wikileaks, an ingenious online dropbox where people could drop secret documents anonymously and without risk of being traced. This would lead to the biggest data dump of highly confidential government documents in the history of mankind.
Bradley Manning is a brilliant intelligence analyst in Iraq. He is also an utterly lonely, isolated and misunderstood human being. Not only is he lonely in the army or in the outpost in Iraq where he is stationed, he is lonely inside himself. He doesn’t have a sense of his true identity; he feels he is living in the wrong body.
Manning uploaded hundreds of thousands of files onto a CD labelled “Lady Gaga”. In one particularly gleeful digital sequence, soundwaves of Lady Gaga’s voice transform into lines of code and then into text from secret documents.
These thousands of glowing secrets are a fuse that ignited the Arab Spring, pushed Iceland’s banking system to collapse and put American diplomacy on the backfoot around the world. At a time when the scale of government access to our personal data is only starting to become clear thanks to fellow-whistleblower Edward Snowden who unveiled the PRISM scandal, the director puts a spotlight on how 9/11 pushed state bureaucracies to collect more data on their citizens than ever before — 60,000 phone calls per second were recorded — and at the same time share that information with more and more officials.
What I see when I watch the documentary is a battle between good and bad. But what is good and what is bad is not so clear. The director of the CIA thinks it is good to keep information secret because in his paradigm it is “good” when “his” country has the upper hand when fighting its enemies. In his eyes Assange and Manning are “bad”. The argument he uses (and what is the ‘official’ stance against Assange and Wikileaks) is that they put people in danger by making information public that they prefer to keep secret. But the information leaked shows lots of killing and torturing of innocent people and has not yet proven to be deadly. At the same time Assange’s response is at some point that those who collaborate with the enemy (the US from his perspective) deserve to die. Both the CIA director as the Wikileaks founder feel that their actions and thoughts are aligned with deeper values and therefore morally justified.
What Assange is doing is incredibly courageous. He knows that taking on the United States government will most likely cost him his life. In a way he is a prisoner already, unable to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He has been living like a fugitive since 2006. Something inside him values his quest for ethics and transparency more than his own life.
Now comes the paradox. The same man who is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of ethics and transparency gets caught acting unethical and non-transparent. Assange got laid twice in Sweden and some distasteful things happened. The sexual charges against him seem to be quite valid and the 2 ladies involved had preferred to settle it outside of court. What happened? During consensual intercourse with 2 different women he tore the condom and/or proceeded to have sex with the women until ejaculation although they requested a condom. They felt uncomfortable about it and when they accidentally found out about each other the discomfort about the unpleasant experience rose and they — understandably although not completely rational — demanded an HIV test. Assange refused. In my eyes this is where his inner demon got the best of him. He did something primal, dark and embarrassing and instead of taking responsibility by sincerely apologizing for his actions and taking the freaking test he declined. The women went to the police, Assange was persecuted and fled Sweden, fearing extradition to the USA.
He has the courage to embarrass the Unites States by revealing its dark side but he doesn’t have the courage to reveal his own dark side and jeopardize his self-image of ethical hero. He didn’t need the CIA to compromise him, his shadow took care of that. To me this is proof of the incredible battle that is going on inside of us. On the deepest level we want to cut through illusion and free ourselves from our demons but subconsciously we know it will be painful and paradigm shattering. So we negotiate an alternative: we will leave our inner demon alone but will use the pain it causes us to fuel the battle against injustice in the physical world.
As revenge for our internal suffering we will inflict as much pain as we dare to “those who deserve it”. What we want is to battle our demons on the inside and how we can ‘see’ what our demons look like is by observing how we choose our targets on the outside. What are you fighting against? What are you running away from?
Back to Bradley Manning. He struggles with his sexuality and gender. Somehow the Universe dealt him cards that are extremely difficult to deal with. He enlists into the army, apparently a pretty unlikely and desperate act, and instead of being found unfit he stumbles his way to access to all kinds of horrible secrets. Accidentally he has the computer knowledge and access to hackers to “do something”.
I see a soul that is suffering. We all seek connection, understanding and acceptation. I think Manning joined to army to find a place to fit in. He might have hoped to be taught to conform, as being normal would relief his suffering. But the paradox was that in his trying to be normal and accepted he betrayed his soul and he suffered tremendously. To him the world was a hostile place and his environment an exponent of that hostility. Then he got access to the most hostile secrets of this already hostile environment. I can imagine that the only way to make something out of his doomed life was to reveal the darkness he had seen. He is now sentenced to 35 years in prison.
I feel both men are good, courageous men. They made bigger sacrifices and took more risks than most of us do in our lifetime. The impact of their actions has been huge and it is quite visible how the forces that are ‘not amused’ are trying to crush them relentlessly. But I think that the forces that are visible on the outside are the same forces that are destructing them from the inside. And not just them, we are all exposed to the same mechanisms.
I feel that Assange’s pitfall was that he focused on exposing the secrets in the world but missing the fact that his desire to expose secrets was a reflection of his deeply personal desire to expose his inner secrets that were hidden from him. Now what would have happened if he would be aware of this mechanism? Would the world look different? Probably, but we don’t know how different. If he would be able to expose and openly share his own weaknesses and emotional motives he would probably be considered a hero and an inspiration by a lot more people (and on more truth based terms), creating a different momentum. But the darker forces in the world would still try to discredit him. The battle for truth and transparency would not be over.
Photo credit: Flickr / espenmoe