Wikileaks and history

The press has been abuzz with stories about Julian Assange for the past months. Lately some prominent politicians and pundits have called for the assassination of Assange as well as death sentences for those who supply him with information.

I can't help but think how badly things have gotten out of hand and the terrible, terrible hipocrisy of the west. When I grew up I was told how evil Soviet Russia, China and places like Cuba were. Places where there was no free speech, where people were jailed without proper legal proceedings, where the state had no respect for human rights, where torture was acceptable, wars were fought for the wrong reasons and the population was kept ignorant of what was going on.

This is us now. We censor, we torture, we jail people without trial, and we start wars for reasons that turn out to be lies. We even allow weak and paralyzed leaders to let extremists dictate how the population is terrorized. At airports and by having their private lives invaded. Sometimes by mean-spirited unskilled labor. Our "inalienable rights" are not so inalienable after all.

Though one should be careful to draw parallels to Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, but I think it is necessary. The holocaust was allowed to happen largely because it was kept a secret to most of the population. There were no images circulating from the camps. There was no official acknowledgement from the authorities that millions of people were being systematically murdered.

Admitting the existence and nature of the camps would, of course, made it hard for the nazi regime to secure the needed support. Secrecy and the ignorance of the population was key.

Had the horrors of the holocaust been known to the population of germany, and outside, it is doubtful if it would have been allowed to proceed. But it wasn't known and millions of people did get killed in ways that are too horrible to contemplate. Millions of people were killed in a country that was considered one of the most advanced and civilized countries of its time.

The holocaust scares us because it showed us what we are capable of. It shows us when government is allowed to operate behind a veil of secrecy. When the checks and balances do not work.

Many of the things that Wikileaks have published are historically important documents. It is important to document war crimes. It is important to document that our politicians are misleading us. It is important to document whom and what we are supporting. What we are letting our leaders do in our name.

And it is important that we know about these things now. While we can still do something about it.

The transgressions, lies and atrocities would probably come to light at some later point in history. When it is too late to do anything about them. We can visit the holocaust museums at Auschwitz -- but it won't bring back the people who were tortured and exterminated there. The world eventually learning about the camps saved exactly nobody.

What would history have looked at if there was a Wikileaks in the 30s and 40s? What would history have looked at if we knew then.

Indeed, what Assange is doing is unpleasant for diplomats and world leaders. But a bit of embarrasment and the possible prosecution of war criminals and inept politicians is a small price to pay to ensure that history won't look back on 2010 with the same sort of regret we look back at dark times in our recent history.

And as for putting people at risk: no credible evidence has been presented for this. And there is a precedent for this already. Scooter Libby outed a CIA operative; while serving in the administration -- yet his punishment for this act of treason was a mere slap on the wrist. Why should someone who isn't even part of the government be held to any higher standard?

And since Obama, and the US, have demonstrated that the US does not prosecute its war criminals, prevention and dissemination of knowledge is critical. There will be no trials. There will be no upholding of the laws. There will be no justice. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld will never be held to the standards that the US has held other war criminals to in the past. The precedent set is that the US president and his staff are free to commit war crimes without fear of prosecution. This is worse than a mere totalitarian regime operating in some hot and humid part of the world: this is us. This is what we are. And we are foregoing the moral high ground of expecting anything more from others.

We must know. We must not repeat history. We must hold our leaders to higher standards.

1 comment:

caboose said...

Good thoughts. Don't know what to make of Wikileaks. On occasion, they seem mischievous but more often than not, one is glad that they're around. This is a pretty good synopsis that I certainly agree with. Regardless, the freak out by the simple-minded is way overblown and altogether pointless. All this attention means Wikileaks or its equivalent is not going away until they're no longer needed..