Every once in a while, a situation arises that so completely captures the spirit of the time—in this case, the horror moving like an amoeba under the surface of our pleasant days, our absurd distractions, our seemingly serious politics—that ordinary assumptions, ordinary arguments and their limited conclusions serve only to obliterate honesty, and so any hope of grappling with the real. Such is the case of Julian Assange now.
He is the wanted man. Wanted for the purpose of conducting criminal proceedings, ostensibly on sexual misconduct allegations in Sweden, but maybe not; maybe on charges of espionage or conspiracy in the United States instead; maybe to face indefinite detention, maybe torture or life in prison. It’s so hard to know… But one thing is not mysterious: the law is no more capable of delivering justice in his case today than it was for a black man alleged to have raped a white woman in the Jim Crow South.
I am not comparing the founder of WikiLeaks, a white man benefiting from not only white-skin privilege and straight-man privilege but also class and celebrity privilege, with black men on the other side of a lynch mob. This is not about the particulars of oppression; it is about the political context of law, the limits of liberal expectations and the monstrosity of the state.
Liberals have no trouble generally acknowledging that in those rape cases against black men, the reasoned application of law was impossible. It was impossible because justice was impossible, foreclosed not by the vagaries of this white jury or that bit of evidence but by the totalizing immorality of white supremacy that placed the Black Man in a separate category of human being, without common rights and expectations. A lawyer might take a case if it hadn’t been settled by the mob, but the warped conscience of white America could do nothing but warp the law and make of its rituals a sham. The Scottsboro Boys might have been innocent or they might have been guilty; it didn’t matter, because either way the result would be the same.
With Assange, the political context is the totalizing immorality of the national security state on a global scale. The sex-crime allegations against Assange emerged in Sweden on August 20, 2010, approximately four and a half months after WikiLeaks blazed into the public sphere by releasing a classified video that showed a US Apache helicopter crew slaughtering more than a dozen civilians, including two journalists, in a Baghdad suburb. By that August, Pfc. Bradley Manning, the reputed source of the video and about 750,000 other leaked government documents, was being held without charge in solitary confinement at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, subjected to what his attorney, David Coombs, describes in harrowing detail in a recent motion as “unlawful pretrial punishment.” In plain terms, Manning was tortured. He faces court-martial for aiding the enemy and has been denounced as a traitor by members of Congress.
For disseminating classified materials that exposed war crimes, Assange has been called a terrorist. A coloring book for children, The True Faces of Evil—Terror, from Big Coloring Books Inc. out of St. Louis, includes his face on a sheet of detachable trading cards, along with Timothy McVeigh, Jared Lee Loughner, Ted Kaczynski, Maj. Nidal Hasan and Bill Ayers. A commentator on Fox News urged President Obama to order his assassination. Vice President Joe Biden called him a “high-tech terrorist” and suggested that the Justice Department might be angling for a prosecution; that was two years ago. Indications of a secret grand jury investigation and imminent indictment have helped ratchet up the rhetoric and tension in and around the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where Assange has received political asylum.