The worst crime you can commit, in the eyes of the powerful, is to embarrass them and to reveal their crimes. That is what Julian Assange did, most notably about U.S. war crimes in Iraq, and that is why he is being hounded and punished. Assange is being made to suffer, and suffer greatly he is, because he spoke truth about the powerful to the powerless. That is arguably the number one job of a real journalist, to hold powerful people accountable, to reveal the truth when so many conspire to keep it hidden. But most journalists are not profiles in courage, just as most people aren’t. The courageous are few, and counted among their number is Assange.
If you’re a journalist looking to make a difference, to shed light in dark corners, do you dare to take on the U.S. government and national security state given its persecution of Assange? Do you want to spend years in a maximum security prison, almost in total isolation, facing extradition to the U.S. for a bogus and nonsensical charge? The U.S. government’s persecution of Assange, though it’s meant to punish him and silence him, is really about intimidating and silencing other journalists. Who now dares to follow Assange’s example?
Power operates most freely, meaning most tyrannically, when it’s unconstrained by accountability. The more Assange suffers, the more America slips into authoritarianism. Joining America in its drift toward tyranny is Great Britain and Australia, with Britain imprisoning Assange and approving his extradition and Australia doing nothing to stop the persecution of one of its own citizens. Such is the corrupting influence of power.
As usual, George Orwell explained all this in “1984” when he described the nature of power:
“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power … [No] one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end … The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”
Assange, like the character of Winston Smith in “1984,” now has a full understanding of the nature of power. It’s come at an enormous price to him. Yet Assange has also revealed the nature of our government to the rest of us, the way it brutally uses power to keep its monopoly on power.
The question is: Are we going to do anything about it? Or is it already too late? And if we do choose to resist, like Winston Smith (and Julian Assange), will we be taken to our own versions of Room 101, after which we too will profess our love for Big Brother?
Addendum: A comment by Dan White stimulated this reply by me. I think it’s worth adding here.
If not obliteration [of people like Assange], then marginalization, incarceration, diminishment, denouncement, and so on. Chelsea Manning. Daniel Hale. Daniel Ellsberg. And many more. Put them in prison and/or accuse them of treason. Seize their assets. Destroy their lives.
Most of all, intimidate those who are wavering, who are thinking, but who perhaps don’t have quite the nerve, or perhaps too much to lose.
The best way to silence whistle blowers is to make them choose to throw their whistle away before it even reaches their mouth.