My cup of dissonance overfloweth

As a thoughtful person with strong convictions, it is inevitable that I find myself conflicted over some issues. For example, I’m not 100% confident in my stance on free speech, I sometimes have trouble  drawing the line in racial issues, and I continue to struggle with my feelings about Anonymous.

This story doesn’t help:

A U.S. military base is the latest target of the online activist group known as Anonymous, which has taken up the cause of Bradley Manning, the U.S. army private accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. The group’s objective is to “harass” the staff and disable the computer systems at the Quantico, Va., marine base where Manning is being held, Anonymous spokesperson Barrett Brown said in an interview with MSNBC. The group plans to reveal personal information about base officials and disable the base’s communication networks in protest against how Manning is being treated at the base, Brown said.

Here’s my issue. On the one hand, I abhor what the United States military and government are doing in response to what is being called “Cablegate”*. Bradley Manning broke the law, and I do not dispute that (although it hasn’t been demonstrated in the court of law yet, let’s just stipulate that he didn’t confess to a crime he didn’t commit). As a result of breaking the law, it is entirely right to try him and punish him. Furthermore, hacking the U.S. military is no joke, particularly when they have active agents in the field. If such actions were undertaken by a foreign government, it would surely be interpreted as an incitement to war.

However, Manning has not been formally tried, but has been kept in solitary confinement. He is not a danger to anyone; he’s only threatening to the careers of politicians. The level of punishment far outweighs the crime. Considering that soldiers that are accused of war crimes have more freedom and privileges than Private Manning, his arbitrarily-harsh sentence reflects what the clear priorities of the military are – protecting their own asses. Considering also that the United States has set itself up as the ‘shining example of freedom’ for the rest of the world, their blatant hypocrisy in dealing with their military’s shortcomings and human rights violations is also a matter of national security. Also in light of the fact that freedom of speech is being suppressed by autocratic governments worldwide (and being met with overwhelming protest), it is entirely in the spirit of the Jasmine Revolution for a group to lodge protest against the suppression of free speech here in America.

So is Anonymous a cyber-terror organization, or a staunch advocate of free speech and a punisher of the iniquitous? At the present moment, I’m inclined to lean toward the latter definition. Their targets have been, up to now, unfailingly deserving of the negative attention. And it seems that their particular brand of internet policing is coming none to soon:

Last year on May 21, the United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) reported reaching initial operational capability, and news stories abound of US soldiers undergoing basic cyber training, which all point to the idea that traditional super powers are starting to explore this arena. Recent activities with one government contractor and Anonymous, however, show clearly that cyber operations have been going on for a long while, and that the private sector has been only too ready to fill the cyber mercenary role for piles of cash.

While I am wary of a disorganized mob of vigilantes hacking various websites, I am far more threatened by the collusion of government and private interests conspiring behind closed doors to spy on computer systems. Anonymous’ activities are done in the open, with a reasoned and defensible justification posted for all to read. The government and military have shown their duplicity for decades when it comes to covert operations. The strength of democratic government is predicated on its openness – the people must know exactly what they are voting for so they can know when a regime must be voted out.

Nobody voted for Anonymous, and it seems as though they/it are/is self-policed and limited only by its own ambition and the complicity of its individual members. There is no auditing Anonymous, no way to check its power, no way to punish it for abuse. In that sense I prefer government. I can show up at my MPs office and voice my displeasure. If I try to do that to Anonymous, I am likely to have my e-mail accounts flooded with child porn. There is no mechanism by which one can defend her/himself from a headless organization – no courts can protect you, no lawsuits can be filed, no restraining order can be put out. As we know, humans given great power and no mechanism for controlling it almost inevitably abuse it.

And so my mind is still not made up. I applaud Anonymous for making the U.S. military deal with the consequences of their treachery and their betrayal of human rights, but I fear what may happen if Anonymous decides that fighting the good fight no longer provides the necessary amount of lulz.

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*The -gate suffix is really stupid. The Watergate scandal, upon which all other ‘-gates’ are based, was based on a hotel called “The Watergate”. It was not a scandal that was related to water, and adding the suffix is therefore completely nonsensical


  1. says

    So is Anonymous a cyber-terror organization, or a staunch advocate of free speech and a punisher of the iniquitous?

    I find that dichotomous or (if you’ll pardon the phrase) black-and-white thinking tends to be mistaken and inevitably leads to such cognitive dissonance. Leave absolutism to the religious and let’s dig into the murky greys.

    The truth is as you lay it out. Anonymous is a dangerous vigilante organization with no accountability that, luckily, is targeting people and organizations we dislike. I will not condone their actions, but can appreciate that someone is doing something against organizations that have superseded their accountability.

  2. Tim says

    Well, he doesn’t need to be tried in the normal sense to be found guilty, at least not if US military law applies similarly to how it is done here in Canada. Reasonable doubt is actually not a factor whatsoever, being replaced by a measure of the likelihood of it happenning. As example: Imagine if a known arsonist were to be found near the scene of the crime of an arson. Military justice will show him guilty, whether evidence exists or not that he actually did it.

    All that being said, I mentioned two points that I still stand by on this when we spoke on the subject:

    1) I do not think that it is bad that the information got out, and perhaps it should have never been Secret in the first place. I still think it was irresponsible for it to have come out.

    2) The operator that released the information must be punished to the maximum extent possible. Regardless of how ‘right’ his actions may have seemed, he failed completely in a duty he swore to uphold.

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