The ongoing discussions about whistleblowers was revived yesterday, when Bradley Manning, the US soldier who leaked 250,000 US diplomatic cables and 500,000 army reports to Wikileaks in 2010, was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
While much has been written about the role of whistleblowers, the need for them and the legal protections they should or shouldn’t enjoy, very little has been said about their motivation. What is it that can make an individual take the kind of risk that may see them spend the rest of their life in jail, or leave behind their partners and their families and any chance of a normal life only to pursue a cause they believe in?
It is a question that, as a German living in an increasingly more authoritarian UK, Matron is beginning to ask herself more and more. Having lived on this island for almost 20 years, it has become here home, many of its people her friends and family. But if she is perfectly honest with herself, it is no longer a country that – were she asked to make the choice today – she would choose to live in.
The almost constant surveillance to which she and millions of other UK residents are now subjected, the often unjust distribution of power that governs the relationship between individuals and the state and which gives the state a considerable advantage, particularly if you do not belong to certain privileged categories, and above all the way in which this is accepted by the majority of the island’s electorate without questioning, whether out of helplessness or because of that little Englander mentality that all too often seems make people immune to any kind of critical thought (see the comments section of pretty much ALL major newspapers), they are all beginning to grate more than they ever did. Make no mistake, this is a very different Britain from the one she entered in 1993.
Despite the fact that certain idiosyncrasies existed even then – suspected IRA terrorists whose voice was not permitted to be heard on public television so that their words had to be spoken by an actor, to name just one – nothing in the way public life was organized back then made her feel so directly affected as is the case today. Is it just that the policemen are getting younger or is there something more?
The surveillance, the police powers, the social inequality, they did not arrive all at once, nor can this necessarily be said to be a linear progress. Things often get better for a while and then they get worse again. But overall it seems to Matron that the direction of travel can no longer be ignored. We are quickly becoming the kind of society where most rules and social norms aim to protect the rights of some at the expense of the rights of others. And where only a dispiritingly small number of people seem to think that there’s anything wrong with that.
It was a step-by-step approach, each step considered in the context of a particular situation, each with a different purpose at heart, each capable of being rationalized and of being viewed almost separately from the other. And each underpinned by that most British of sentiments, that complete confidence in the “gentlemanliness” of the establishment and the resilience of British society, the deep-seated trust, that even expansive powers would never be abused or even used to their full effect and to the detriment of the British people, that “THEY wouldn’t do that”, that "to do that" would be conduct unbecoming on the part of the politicians and policemen and soldiers and diplomats and spies of a nation that had, after all, been instrumental in securing the freedom of all Europeans and the world in two world wars and where nothing that “truly” restricted that freedom would ever be tolerated.
And yet, with each new power and with each piece of evidence that that power will indeed be used to its full extent, if not beyond, Matron has been waiting for those proud British people to resist, to defend the home that was once their castle, to show compassion and to reclaim their right to live in freedom, not fear. Alas, what can be observed is much closer to the syndrome of the frog that, if placed in a pot of boiling water, will jump out but that will happily be cooked to death if the water is heated slowly.
In Germany, they call this kind of approach “salami tactics”, the making of an unpopular change “slice-by-slice” rather than all at once, and its effect has never been better described than in this “Yes Prime Minister” episode, where a government special advisor explains to James Hacker why spending increasing amounts of money on nuclear deterrents won’t work. Because, you see, by the Prime Minister’s own admission he would only ever “press the button” if he has no choice and the Russians (still the baddies at the time) would never put him in a situation where he has no choice.
It is probably no coincidence that said government advisor speaks with an Austrian accent because unlike the British, German and Austrian citizens have been witness to salami tactics in the most terrible of circumstances. Small changes here, restrictions imposed on the rights of certain population groups there – none in themselves earth-shattering, but together and over time leading to the most destructive and inhumane totalitarian regime ever witnessed. And the answer to the question asked by the children of those who were there to witness those atrocities – “Why did you not prevent this?” “Why did you not do something?” – always being, “What should I have done? When should I have done it? Why me? Why not the others?”
Because to stand up against an increasingly malevolent regime at a time when it is still widely viewed by everyone else as benevolent requires not only guts (described in this recent Guardian column as “the whistleblower’s mad moral courage”) but also the kind of pain threshold with regard to the woes of the world that makes others think you suffer from certain mental health issues.
Because - as Manning’s pathologisation during his trial has shown and as the author of the Guardian column most succinctly explains - “in every society, democratic or totalitarian, the sensible, grown-up thing to do is to commit to the long haul of sleazy conformity […]What spoils it is the obstinate few who do otherwise – those, absurdly, who actually believe in the necessary fictions; enough to be moved and angered by the difference between what an organisation does in reality and what it says in public.”
Arguably it is this inability to be ok with the fact that “things are the way they are and that there is nothing we can do about it” that drives most whistleblowers. And the feeling that they MUST do something about it - regardless of the cost to them and others - just so they can live with themselves.
So Matron has often asked herself what she would have done, if she had grown up in 1930s Germany. And she is now asking herself what it would be like if this era ended up in the history books as "2010s Britain". What would have to happen for her to leave the UK behind once and for all (she is not yet so far as to consider the kind of resistance that might earn her - at the time that resistance is exercised - the label "terrorist"). There are certain red lines – the UK leaving the EU or abandoning the European Convention on Human Rights – but those lines are arbitrary, whose those and not others, and she doesn’t really believe that any UK government will realistically cross them in a hurry. Like James Hacker, it is unlikely that she and others will ever be put in a situation where “we have no choice”.
And what about in the meantime? What about the poor being vilified as scroungers and immigrants being asked to “go home” and interception of everyone's communication and detention without trial and rendition and wars that are found to violate international law and journalists’ boyfriends being detained and searched at UK airports under anti-terrorism powers on the flimsiest of pretenses? What is she doing about those situations where real people are already suffering other than signing petitions and writing blog posts and joining the odd protest? And what would she have done in Manning’s or in Snowden’s shoes?
The kind of Weltschmerz that may very well be part of many whistleblowers' motivation is something that, at some level, a lot of people share. It causes some to act (often against their own best interest) and others merely to suffer. It is often rather cynically called "bleeding heart liberalism". But at its most extreme it is probably better described as it is in a play, The radicalization of Bradley Manning, that is currently on show at the Edinburgh Fringe:
“The world can’t be like this or I can’t be in it.”