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A three year court-martial that began with the largest classified leak in U.S. history ended July 30 with the conviction of Pfc. Bradley Manning. For 17 counts of theft, espionage and other alleged crimes against the interests of the American public, Manning may spend the rest of his life in America’s farcically named criminal justice system. But for those who take the nation’s founding values of liberty and democracy seriously, his place in the history of American martyrdom is secure.

Is there anything to envy about someone who sacrifices all the worthwhile possibilities of life for the chance to save the rest of us? In the future, American justice decrees, Manning will never know the pleasures and terrors of dating in what remains of his 20s. He won’t enjoy long walks and leisurely picnics, the regular embrace of loved ones, or precious days off work doing whatever he pleases. He’ll never have traveled the world as anything but a child or the American soldier he once was. He won’t be present for birthdays, marriages and retirement parties — precious milestones in the lives of his aging friends and family. He’ll spend those mornings, afternoons and evenings sitting in a cell, thinking, staring, and by all odds struggling to retain a sense of himself not shaped overwhelmingly by loneliness, the indifference of elected officials and a mentally distracted public, and the cruelties of prison guards.

In short, he’s entered hell, a place in which the wounds he received for the last three years will be inflicted again, and again, never to be healed in a manner you and I would think desirable.

For stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man, the Greek myth goes, the Titan Prometheus was punished by the gods. He was chained to a rock where, daily, for 30,000 years, his entrails were ripped open and eaten by an eagle (a symbol of the vengeful god Zeus). At the end of this gruesome interval, the half-man, half-god Hercules, the heroic son of Zeus, slew the eagle and set Prometheus free.

For giving the American public a glimpse at its government’s true nature — of its viciousness abroad and duplicity at home — Manning too is condemned to a kind of physical and mental destruction at the hands of an entity that also asserts its virtue with a symbolic eagle.

I imagine Prometheus to be proud for enabling humanity to cook, feel warmth and enjoy a sweeter life. Fearful and despondent as Manning must be, I imagine him to be equally proud for giving his fellow citizens, those who hate as well as love him, information essential to exercising their citizenship in a democracy so many of them proudly claim to love. For them Manning sacrificed his personal and physical freedom, but he gained the only freedom that comparatively few people committed to the cause of humanity throughout history have thought ultimately worthwhile: the freedom to know and tell the truth. In this manner, he has exceeded virtually all of us, including his persecutors.

Although much of the public may be prevented from knowing it by its secret-loving government, Manning’s story is one of our era’s defining dramas. At the close of this chapter, one important question that remains is whether those whom he helped inform will have, in the dwindling time that environmental and economic crises and a massive spying operation leaves to them, the courage and means to heroically restore to him and to the rest of society the freedoms that vengeful gods in government make it their duty to take away.

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