The consensus view–that Julian Assange wouldn’t be given fair treatment from the US legal system–says something about him and even more about us: he doesn’t have the guts for journalism, and we don’t have the guts for justice.
Assange, founder of the Internet news agency Wikileaks, is the man who published a videotape (with audio) of mass murder on a Baghdad street committed by a team of American soldiers and recorded by the Army. He’s been under house arrest in London for months, wanted in Sweden for questioning in connection with complaints from a couple of women who entertained him during a visit to their country. Some weeks ago, he managed to make it to Ecuador’s embassy in London, and that nation has decided to give him asylum, expressing concern that he will be shipped off by Sweden to the USA to face unspecified charges (and maybe torture) in connection with his release of the incriminating video and a bunch of embarrassing cables circulated among State Department officials.
You would think America would rise up in support of its constitution and threaten, in this election year, to withhold its vote if candidates don’t stand up for Assange and a free press. Forget about it. Americans are scared. Scared into accepting torture, assassination, imprisonment without legal process, abridgement of First Amendment freedoms, and world war waged by their government, not to mention rude and intrusive treatment at the whim of any authority figure. They entertain themselves with simulated heroics, but only a minuscule number of them actually signs up to wear a military uniform, and all of them bend over when their boss tells them to. The most cowardly tactics of warfare–robotic weapons, guided missiles, body armor–find widespread approval among them, and American militarism is universally celebrated, for their edification, among people in the elections industry. So scared are Americans that we allow our government to trash the Bill of Rights and corrupt our values. People who don’t have the guts to uphold their values don’t have any.
Does the abject cowardice of the American people guarantee that Assange won’t receive fair treatment if he comes here? Many are saying that the Constitution is just words on paper, and that the guarantee of a free press–with an unfettered right, maybe even a duty, to publish evidence of malfeasance and murder by agents of government–is illusory. To test that cynical proposition, some reporter would have to publish something in defiance of the US government and invoke his constitutional privilege in a court of law. Julian Assange is not that reporter.
We thought it was journalistic integrity and courage that motivated Assange to release material incriminating the US government, but we may have been wrong about that. Not that he doesn’t have reason to be afraid. Talking heads from politics and the mass media have said on television that he should be put to death. Reporters refer to him as “whistleblower” and often say he’s suspected of espionage, but they never mention that he exposed mass murder by US soldiers. Such bias, coupled with America’s willing surrender to totalitarian rule, must chill Assange to the bone, but it’s no excuse for cowardice. Courage would require him to overcome his fear, even to the point of risking death. Reporters used to do that every day.
Some other reporter in his shoes might see a visit to the states as an opportunity to invoke our stumbling nation’s Bill of Rights and vindicate the Wikileaks disclosures as acts of responsible journalism. From a legal standpoint, there is no question that the Constitution is on the side of disclosure. If the reporter were charged with espionage, he could point out that espionage is something people do in secret. Publication of guilty secrets is news-reporting, and it’s privileged under the Constitution. In a prosecution for espionage, the reporter would be able to argue that the disclosures were beneficial, revealing grievous acts of malfeasance, including murder. He might have to spend some time in jail to accomplish all this, and he might not be exonerated in the end, but you don’t win a struggle over human rights by giving up in advance.
Win or lose, the hypothetical reporter would be able to say that he did his job as a journalist and faced whatever legal repercussions resulted from his work. He wouldn’t be plagued by questions of honor, courage and self-respect. Others, like Bradley Manning and, a generation before him, Dan Ellsberg, risked imprisonment to bring guilty secrets to light, and they didn’t run away. The hypothetical reporter would put himself in their estimable company by bravely confronting hostile authority and invoking the rule of law. For all of us.