Is Bradley Manning Really a Humanist?

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, examines Bradley Manning’s humanism, which is being used to justify Manning’s leak of classified information.

Many news outlets are covering the trial of Army Private First Class Bradley Manning that is being held at Fort Meade, Maryland. This is an ongoing saga since May 2010 when Manning allegedly released massive amounts of classified data to the website WikiLeaks, and essentially the entire Internet. The story speaks directly to the debate about American wars in the Middle East and to freedom of information. As outrage about government eavesdropping on private conversations arises, a soldier is on trial for releasing what the government considered to be its private information. In addition, Manning had discussed that he was female and wanted gender reassignment surgery, so it also touches on LGBT issues in the military.

But Manning also claims humanist beliefs. David Coombs, whose law office is represented through the website, is defending Manning. He made a show that Manning had ID tags with “humanist” written on them, which were custom-made, since the military does not allow official humanist tags People’s World reports that Coombs argued, “that his actions came from his deeply held beliefs that all lives had value, Iraqi and American.” Because the defense is leaning on Manning’s humanist beliefs, this trial also calls for humanist attention as well. We should ask ourselves how we as humanists should look on these actions that were taken by someone who identifies as humanist and who took action reportedly in accordance with his humanist values.

Exposing government atrocities like rape (Abu Ghraib) or snooping on citizens (Snowden) may be an honorable form of civil disobedience. One video among the data leaked by Manning showed a helicopter firing on rescue workers. Had that been the only thing released, one could see this as honorable civil disobedience to expose and thereby prevent further shameful acts by our military or government. However, Manning indiscriminately released many documents and data files. Anything could have been included. Such lack of care might justify severe punishment, like indiscriminately firing into a town where a few militants are thought to be.

As for Bradley Manning’s humanism, he has never reached out to any humanist organization I am aware of. He has claimed humanist identity and in some sense may have expressed humanist values, but he has never benefited from direct involvement in the humanist community. His legal team is leaning strongly on Manning’s conscience as justification for his actions. He certainly seems to be concerned with human life and may be humanitarian. However, it is unknown whether his conscience or values would be “humanist” in a way the American Humanist Association might agree with.

From the humanist perspective, we humanists would want to provide care and support to Bradley Manning and others in need. He in particular has been treated unfairly by any standard. As humanists, we favor rehabilitation over punishment, and seek to treat even murderers with compassion. We would like to reach out to Manning to provide comfort, support, and humanist mentorship, if he wishes. However, thus far, he has not reached out to any of our organizations, and outreach to his attorneys has not been returned.

Jason Torpy, MAAF PresidentJason Torpy is president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and the Treasurer of the American Humanist Association’s Board of Directors.