The real reason Chelsea Manning could face solitary: It's about power

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Chelsea Manning has, in her recent past, faced the most serious charges that can be brought against a person in this country. At one point, the whistleblower faced an "aiding the enemy" charge, which can carry capital punishment. This week, by contrast, Manning will defend herself against disciplinary charges including acts as ostensibly innocuous as possessing unapproved reading material and storing expired toothpaste. The potential punishment is outrageously harsh: Indefinite solitary confinement (a form of torture, according to the United Nations).


We should not be surprised by the pettiness of the charges and the extremity of the punishment. Prisoners in the U.S. are regularly isolated for far less — failure to return food trays, for example. The punishment within prisons for the tiniest violations represent what philosopher Michel Foucault called "micropénalité," or the microphysics of power — the production of docile bodies through the monitoring and control of everyday life. Disciplinary ferocity aims to further turn people into prisoners. It is effective by virtue of punishing the petty; no aspect of life can be outside the authority of the prison.

That Manning is facing such punishment is especially unsurprising, but certainly enraging. Since her arrest in 2010 for leaking classified documents, the U.S. military and government have made every effort to reduce the whistleblower to nothing.


Manning informed the public of her upcoming hearing via Twitter. Most recently, she reported that she has been denied access to the military prison's law library at scheduled times, even though she will be representing herself at Tuesday's hearing. This particular detail tells us something important about how disciplinary procedure works in such spaces. Were Manning's hearing simply an issue of upholding brig discipline, then the inmate would be not be denied access to the materials which could help her defend her case to the fullest extent. But this is about punishment, and the reminder of the military's control over the woman who has done more to rightfully threaten their moral legitimacy than perhaps any other American in recent history. This is about power, and ensuring Manning has none.

It doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to wonder whether Manning is being targeted for her public profile. It's to the whistleblower's profound credit that while incarcerated, and facing decades more time as such, she has been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights, and has continued to condemn U.S. civil liberties and human rights violations from her column in The Guardian.

The military might well want to silence her celebrated voice under the pretext of discipline. While this is highly plausible — I think likely — I also urge that we remember that at any one point over 80,000 inmates are being held in some form of isolation or segregation in U.S. prisons, regularly, as noted above, for minor infractions. It is an unacceptable barbarism on every occasion.

Reportedly, the unapproved reading materials for which Manning faces punishment include Malala Yousafzai's autobiography, the Caitlyn Jenner issue of Vanity Fair and the Senate report on torture. One wonders what materials get approved, or indeed approved specifically for one of the most famous whistleblowers in history. It speaks to Manning's fortitude that she remains so engaged in issues of justice. And it speaks to the injustice to which she has been subjected that she may be harshly punished for it again.


If Manning is indeed placed in indefinite solitary confinement, I hope this becomes a decision the military is forced to regret. When Foucault wrote about archaic forms of torture — particularly public executions — he argued that the shift away from such forms of punishment in favor of the more veiled locus of the prison was in part due to unintended consequences the sovereign experienced from torturing its condemned. High among them was the invocation of sympathy and anger from the public on behalf of the prisoner; public executions sometimes led to riots in support of the executed.

Manning and her supporters have made the extremities of her torture public. Our anger at her mistreatment may not as of yet be felt as an unwanted consequence by the U.S. military and government. We should ensure that it is.

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