Chelsea Manning, Humanists Stand with You!

Humanist philosophy is deeply concerned with ethics and morality. While many religious traditions conflate lists of rules with morality, humanists, especially humanists who have left a dogmatic religion, understand that there can be a difference between following the rules and doing what is right. Unfortunately, as many humanists also know, someone who does the morally right thing when it contradicts the rules can often face ostracism and punishment. Perhaps no one knows this unfortunate truth better than Chelsea Manning.

As you likely already know, Manning is a US soldier who sent documents to WikiLeaks that revealed human rights abuses that the US military committed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. These documents include information about the US military’s killing of civilian children and journalists as well as torture of prisoners in Iraq. They also contain information about military contractors engaging in child trafficking and about innocent individuals detained at Guantanamo. In a court statement, Manning describes her moral quandary of learning about these atrocities and ultimately coming to the decision that the American public had a right to know about “the true cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Despite Manning’s bravery as a whistleblower, she was court-martialed and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison in 2013. Around the same time, she came out as a transgender woman and announced that she would be referred to as Chelsea instead of her given name, Bradley.

The prospect of spending more than three decades in a military prison would be daunting to anyone, but for a transgender woman, it would likely be even more formidable. While the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has granted rights to gay and lesbian soldiers, no such recognitions extend to transgender military personnel. Despite the expert opinion of many medical professionals and psychologists that denying hormone therapies or sex reassignment surgeries to transgender inmates is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, the US Army does not recognize the gender identities of transgender inmates.

Through Manning’s courage, however, that policy may change, though she may sadly again be punished for choosing what is right instead of following the rules. On July 5, 2016, Manning attempted suicide after Fort Leavenworth prison subjected her to long stretches of solitary confinement and denied her medical treatment that would facilitate her gender transition. Advocates for prisoners’ rights have long documented the psychological torture of solitary confinement and urged the government to do away with it as a form of cruel and unusual punishment. On several occasions, the American Humanist Association has submitted testimony before the US Senate calling for a ban on the use of solitary confinement in prisons. AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “Many studies have documented the detrimental psychological and physiological effects of long-term solitary confinement, including hallucinations, perceptual distortions, panic attacks, and suicidal ideation. Considering this severe harm, we strongly believe prolonged solitary confinement is a violation of the inherent dignity in every human being.” Given the severe psychological toll of extended solitary confinement, coupled with the military’s denial of her gender identity, one can understand how Manning would feel driven to suicide. After her suicide attempt, Manning began a hunger strike, which she ended last week on September 14, when the Army finally agreed to allow her to transition.

Manning’s extreme actions could set a precedent for the treatment of transgender inmates in military prisons and may also be a step toward full acknowledgement and rights for transgender soldiers more broadly. However, in her willingness to fight and even die for her rights and the rights of other transgender individuals in the military, Manning may face even harsher punishment in solitary confinement. This Thursday, she will be subjected to a disciplinary board hearing in which she will be charged for her own suicide attempt and at which she will be denied legal counsel.

The American Civil Liberties Union is demanding more humane treatment for Manning, and WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange has stated that if President Obama will pardon Manning, he will turn himself over to US authorities. Amnesty International included a chapter about Manning in its recently released Here I Stand, a collection of stories that call for activism on behalf of freedom and human rights. The Chelsea Manning Support Network has a petition calling for her release, accepts donations to cover her legal fees and to help set a precedent for future whistleblower cases, and also provides information about how sympathetic individuals can write her letters of encouragement.

Despite these efforts on her behalf, Manning understandably feels very alone, with the prison restricting her access to communication. Unlike Edward Snowden, another famous whistleblower who studied Manning’s situation to avoid arrest and media criticism, Manning has been largely forgotten by the public. Fifty-two percent of Americans think she is a traitor, compared to Snowden, about whom 55 percent of Americans hold favorable opinions. Of course, Snowden conveniently has cisgender privilege on his side, while the media used Manning’s identity as a transgender woman to discredit and dismiss her. With every aspect of Manning’s life currently being controlled by the government, she understandably can feel powerless. As she told Amnesty International, “Governments have so much power, and a single person often does not. It is very terrifying to face the government alone.”

The humanist community should stand up and tell Chelsea Manning that she is not alone. As an atheist and a humanist, she is one of us, and we should be crying out for justice for her louder than anyone. Through her bold actions to do what’s right, even at great personal cost, she is paving the way for more humane treatment of transgender individuals in the military and for fair treatment for government whistleblowers. She is suffering so that those who come after her will, hopefully, not need to suffer so much. Her treatment by the US government, from her bravery in exposing government wrongdoing to her torturous solitary confinement, flies in the face of the humanist values of human rights, compassion, empathy, and justice. As humanists, we know that doing what is right might mean breaking the rules, but Chelsea Manning has courageously broken the rules to do what is right again and again. We cannot let an unjust government and a society that marginalizes transgender individuals break her.