Teachable Moments: From the Manning Verdict to the March on Washington

By Felicia Gustin
Aug 24, 2013

Last night I dreamt that Chelsea was my daughter. Chelsea who was Bradley who was just sentenced to 35 years in prison. It was one of those wandering about, helpless, lost, not knowing what to do dreams. Kind of like how I had been feeling about the whole situation while awake.

Chelsea is just 3 years older than my actual daughter. As a parent, life is filled with teachable moments. As a parent and social justice activist, those teachable moments multiply from daily life lessons to helping my daughter understand why our society promotes anti-bullying efforts but invades other countries; why our nation’s founding documents tout a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” but in practice are beholden to the corporations of the highest bidder; or why a whistleblower is prosecuted instead of celebrated as a hero.

Chelsea’s verdict is ironically Washington’s own attempt at a teachable moment – trying to teach us what happens when you step out of line, when your moral compass tells you to speak out against injustice and to cast light on the lies and illegal actions of your own government as Chelsea did.

I was so moved by Chelsea’s statement after the verdict came down. You may have already seen it, but it bears rereading (as I have done multiple times):

“The decisions that I made in 2010 were made out of the concern for my country and the world that we live in. Since the tragic events of 9/11, our country has been at war. We have been at war with an enemy that chooses not to meet us on a traditional battlefield. Due to this fact, we’ve had to alter our methods of combatting the risk posed to us and our way of life.

I initially agreed with these methods and chose to volunteer to help defend our country. It was not until I was in Iraq and reading secret military reports on a daily basis that I started to question the morality of what we were doing. It was at this time that I realized that our efforts to meet the risk posed to us by the enemy, we had forgotten our humanity. We consciously elected to devalue life both in Iraq and Afghanistan. When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians. Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.

In our zeal to kill the enemy, we internally debated the definition of torture. We held individuals at Guantanamo for years without due process. We inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government. And we stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror.

Patriotism is often the cry extolled when morally questionable acts are advocated by those in power. When these cries of patriotism drown out any logically-based dissension, it is usually an American soldier that is given the order to carry out some ill-conceived mission.

Our nation has had similar dark moments for the virtues of democracy — the Trail of Tears, the Dred Scott decision, McCarthyism and the Japanese-American internment camps—to mention a few. I am confident that many of the actions since 9/11 will one day be viewed in a similar light.

As the late Howard Zinn once said, there is not a flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.

I understand that my actions violated the law. I regret that my actions hurt anyone or harmed the United States. It was never my intent to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people. When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and my sense of duty to others.

If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.”

Chelsea’s statement provides another teachable moment but one of the really hard ones. “Yes honey, I do want you to speak out, but if you do you might go to jail for 35 years.”  Yes, there may be a price to pay.

It reminds me when my daughter was little and her grade school was celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and learning about the Civil Rights movement. Another parent and I struggled with how to handle talking with our children about the subliminal message they were getting – that if you get involved in the struggle for racial equality, you might be killed. Because after all that’s what happened to Dr. King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and to dozens of civil rights activists as well as innocent bystanders who happened to be in the way of those who were in the way of history.

So how to we get to that place where we are willing to do the right thing at all cost? And pass that along to our children? I don’t have an answer but I do know it takes a ton of courage. Like Chelsea has.

And it takes a deep sense of our own history. As we mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we must remember that Martin Luther King didn’t just have a dream. He also had a clearly articulated anti-war and anti-militarist stance. In his rousing speech on the Vietnam War, "A Time to Break Silence," delivered at Riverside Church, New York City, on April 4, 1967, he expressed these sentiments:

"A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, 'This way of settling differences is not just.' This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

In that same speech, Dr. King said:

“Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world."

I’m sure it was no easy task for Pfc. Manning to make the decision to reveal our government’s “morally questionable acts” she was privy to. Someday history will absolve her. But for now we must build political pressure for a presidential pardon and to do so also means educating those who may know little about this case (and there are many including your friends and mine) or who are more focused on her choice to live as a woman. Another act of courage, by the way.

I got an email from Barrack Obama yesterday. One the subject line it said, “This is personal for me.” I didn’t read the email itself, probably another of the dozen appeals I get every day asking me for a donation of $3 to counter the Republican forces of evil. I hit reply and wrote, “The conviction of Bradley Manning is personal for me.” And it is. Chelsea Manning is my daughter.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Felicia Gustin has been with War Times since the beginning. She currently works at SpeakOut, a national organization working primarily with colleges, universities, and high schools and dedicated to the advancement of education, racial and social justice, leadership development and activism. She is a long-time activist in international solidarity, peace, racial justice and labor movements. She was a journalist for 10 years in Cuba and is currently working on several projects - an historical memoir and a poetry collection, among others.

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