Debate Forum: 11/22

Suicide squad?

Chelsea Manning’s second attempt raises questions

By Sarah Sidlow

In July, Chelsea Manning attempted to commit suicide in prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. As punishment, she was sentenced to solitary confinement. In October, as she started her first night, she attempted suicide again.

Manning is a former Army intelligence analyst serving a 35-year sentence for leaking a whole bunch of secrets to WikiLeaks (which made Manning a hero to open-government activists). Her story has raised a lot of questions about how the military handles troubled soldiers. When she downloaded the documents and sent them to WikiLeaks, she was Pfc. Bradley Manning—struggling with gender dysphoria, extraordinary stress, and isolation in the Iraq war zone. At that time, being openly gay was reason for discharge without the college tuition benefits that motivated Manning’s original enlistment.

Like her time in service, the events in the week surrounding her second suicide attempts are bizarre, at best, and may soon come under investigation. Chase Strangio, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing Manning, warned that putting her in solitary confinement could exacerbate her destabilizing health. He was right. After the recent incident, Manning was informed by the Army that it would hold another disciplinary hearing on the second attempted suicide and that she possibly faced new punishment. Technically, the Fort Leavenworth disciplinary panel cannot explicitly punish Manning for attempted suicide. Completed suicide is not a disciplinary violation, and to be guilty of attempting a crime, it’s necessary for the act attempted to be one—an awkward paradox. Instead, they disciplined her for “conduct which threatens,” stating that Manning’s attempt to die interfered with “orderly running, safety, good order and discipline, or security” of the facility.

Since her suicide attempt in October, Manning, 28, has been released from the special observation unit and returned to the general inmate population, and can again receive mail and make phone calls. One of those letters was a petition to outgoing President Barack Obama asking for an early release after serving six of the 35 years of her sentence. Assuming President Obama does not act on her request, her actions raise a more global question about the legal boundaries regarding suicide, or “the right to die.”

As a prisoner, Manning’s privileges are severely limited, and very well may stay that way… so, should Chelsea Manning be permitted to commit suicide?

Many say yes. They believe that Americans should have a right guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right not to be forced to suffer. They argue it should be considered as much of a crime to force someone to live who doesn’t want to as it is to take a life without consent. This school of thought is often applied to severely compromised or elderly medical patients who may seek physician-assisted suicide as an end-of-life solution. In Manning’s case, the suffering is evident—the possibility of putting her back in solitary confinement is far from a suitable therapy measure, they argue, and forcing her to endure more abuses is inhumane. Instead, allowing Manning to commit suicide would both end her suffering and relieve a significant burden on the resources required to keep someone imprisoned.

Still, many believe the question of suicide is too complicated to be condensed to one law or set of guidelines. For example, how can a policy grant medical patients the ability to choose death while also protecting them against unscrupulous doctors? Moreover, most existing or proposed assisted suicide policies require the person to be sufficiently competent to make that judgment call—a serious gray area for a large swath of people who may want it—including Manning. Can someone charged for espionage and aiding the enemy, who has been known to go “catatonic” mid-conversation, be deemed competent enough to rationalize the decision of death?

Moreover, they argue, legalizing suicide is a slippery slope toward court-ordained murder. Who’s to stop a prison warden, for example, from killing every inmate because they’ll probably suffer psychological damage from being in prison?

Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

Final exit for a whistleblower

By Tim Walker

Chelsea Manning has suffered enough. After two unsuccessful suicide attempts, having served more time in prison than any other whistleblower in history, Manning should be released from her military prison cell immediately. I firmly believe that, in one of his last acts as president of the United States, Barack Obama should commute Chelsea’s sentence, give her credit for time served, and grant her release from her current home in the prison barracks at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.

If that is not a viable option, then she should be allowed to die, if that is what she chooses to do.

Chelsea Elizabeth Manning was born Bradley Edward Manning in Crescent, Oklahoma, in 1987. A soldier in the U.S. Army, Manning was court martialed and convicted in 2013 of violations of the Espionage Act and a variety of other offenses (although she was acquitted of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy, which carries a sentence of death). Bradley Manning was diagnosed with gender identity disorder while in the Army, and the day after her sentencing, she announced that she would henceforth live her life as a woman. She was arrested and charged after the government learned she had leaked over 700,000 files of classified information to the Wikileaks organization. The classified information, which in turn was posted by Wikileaks on the internet, included censored videos of U.S. airstrikes during which civilians were killed, diplomatic cables, and classified Army reports, many of which proved to be very embarrassing to the United States government. Manning had access to this material through her position as an intelligence analyst in Iraq, where she was stationed with her U.S. Army unit.

While awaiting trial, from July 2010 to April 2011, Manning was held in Quantico, Virginia, under “Prevention of Injury” status, which entailed solitary confinement and other restrictions, which caused domestic and international concern regarding the soldier’s inhumane treatment. Philip J. Crowley, a top State Department spokesman at the time, was critical about Private Manning’s treatment during a talk at M.I.T., calling it “ridiculous, counterproductive, and stupid,” and saying he did not understand Defense Department officials’ reasons for imposing it. Manning is now seen around the world, variously, as a political prisoner, a hero, a traitor, and the moral equivalent of China’s Tiananmen Square Tank Man, and calls for her release have been issued from human rights organizations worldwide.

In July of this year, while serving out her sentence in Ft. Leavenworth, Manning tried to commit suicide. Delusional, suffering from gender dysphoria, held in solitary confinement for extended periods of time before being transferred to the all-male prison barracks at Ft. Leavenworth, and facing the reality of serving out a 35-year sentence, the 28-year-old Manning simply tried to get away from her situation in the only route available to her—she tried to end her pain by ending her life.

In a typically stupid, knee-jerk reaction to her July suicide attempt, an Army board sentenced her to two additional weeks of solitary confinement as punishment. Yes, an inmate whose lengthy stays in solitary confinement had exacerbated her already present mental illness was sentenced to even more solitary confinement as punishment for a suicide attempt resulting, arguably, from those same mental illnesses. On the night her ill-advised punishment began in October, Manning tried to kill herself once again—her second suicide attempt in four months. Manning’s lawyer, Chris Strangio of the ACLU, has stated that he believes Manning is delusional and that she is not receiving proper healthcare.

Making a case for suicide is never an easy argument—for many, giving even the terminally ill the option of ending their own lives with dignity is a subject better left unexplored. Life, it might be said, is for the living, and any discussion of euthanasia, of ending a life prematurely, is simply not acceptable. I am NOT one of those people, however. As we all are responsible for living our lives as we see fit, so are we responsible for ending those same lives when circumstances take away all quality of life.

Arguments could be made that Manning is a prisoner, and that allowing her to kill herself would be equivalent to letting her take the easy way out, of avoiding her punishment. Arguments could be made that if she is truly mentally ill, and not in control of her faculties, then she can’t make a conscious decision to end her life in the first place.

I say that Chelsea Manning has suffered enough—if the government will not release her, then let her bring an end to her hellish situation, a life that many of us can’t even imagine in its horror. It is ironic that the most serious charge Manning faced—that of aiding the enemy—carried with it a death sentence, and that is one of the charges for which she was ultimately acquitted. This brave soul, Chelsea Manning, should now be allowed to carry out that particular sentence if she chooses to, a punishment for a crime she was never convicted of, true, but one which she is obviously seeking out in an attempt to end the pain of her oh-so-solitary confinement.

Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer
Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com.

The good of the many

By Don Hurst

The U.S. Army should not allow Chelsea Manning to commit suicide. It needs to do everything in its power to keep Manning alive, no matter how loudly and how many tearful letters she writes to the president. For Manning’s own good and that of all military service members struggling with suicide, the Army cannot allow Manning to have her way.

Manning is not mentally competent to make the decision to end her life. Her legal team attempted to use her gender identity disorder as a mitigating factor for her criminally divulging classified material and endangering thousands of lives. During the trial, Manning regularly babbled nonsense and drifted into frozen, catatonic states. If these actions were genuine, then Manning’s mental health history proves that she does not have the capacity to decide to end her life.

Even if she was of sound mind, the Army still cannot allow her to commit suicide. The military has to consider the welfare of all soldiers over the desires of the individual, who only thinks about him or herself.

There are other prisoners at Leavenworth who have mental health issues and suicidal ideations. These inmates struggle with the intense pressures of confinement, separation from friends and family, and the loss of status from having rank stripped from them. It’s already a Herculean task to keep them safe. If the Army just shrugged its shoulders and allowed Manning to commit suicide, that task becomes much more difficult. Manning’s death would serve as a deadly precedent for other inmates who believe they want to die.

It’s unreasonable to expect the military to differentiate between those too mentally ill to make the decision to commit suicide and those who are competent. If a physically healthy person decides to die, doesn’t that speak to a mental illness? If it doesn’t, then why do we spend so much time and money on preventing suicide? It should be fair game for everybody.

Suicide is a major epidemic in the veteran community. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of 20 veterans kill themselves every day. Every day. In 2014, 7,403 veterans committed suicide.

Allowing Chelsea Manning to kill herself gives tacit approval to the tens of thousands of hurting veterans to go ahead and do it. If the Army officially endorses suicide as an acceptable alternative to treatment, then we can expect that already disastrously high number of 20 veterans a day to skyrocket. The military needs to make clear that the mental health of all service members matters, even dishonorable soldiers serving 35 years in prison for espionage.

Maybe placing the health of all vets on the shoulders of Chelsea Manning is unfair to her, but that’s what she signed up for. The military is not about the needs of the individual. It’s about sacrificing yourself for the good of those around you. When you enlist, the military makes it very clear that you no longer live for yourself. The lives of others depend on your actions.

Keeping Manning alive is also good for Manning in the long run. I read her letter to President Obama. It is a sad story of intolerance and a painful childhood. It’s also a completely self-absorbed story. There is no room for selfishness. There is no room for Manning’s constant focus on her problems as reasons for her actions. Manning is a soldier—she needs to act like it.

The truth is Chelsea Manning is a weak human being. Not because of her sexual orientation or gender status. Not because she is suicidal. She’s weak because she allows others to define her character. The language in her letter puts the blame on everyone around her. Her parents were supposed to fix her. The Army was supposed to fix her. The prison guards were supposed to fix her. Now President Obama is supposed to fix her.

Even if President Obama pardons her today, she won’t be free. The Army and its prison are actually Manning’s best odds for true freedom. The military is giving her a second chance to prove she is a warrior.

Basic training and war did not convince Manning to build the strength to get over herself and use her experiences to better society. Maybe prison can. If Manning refuses to quit she can be a person, not broken by her punishment, but redeemed. The Manning that leaves prison taking full responsibility for her actions with courage and dignity can do far more for society than the Manning now who points the finger of blame. Future Manning has the potential to teach the military and the LGBTQ community how to work together to respect the individual without allowing the individual to degrade unit cohesion and service to the group.

The Army cannot allow present Manning to kill that future Manning.

 

Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at DonHurst@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Sarah Sidlow
Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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