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.
It has been common for the media to compartmentalize: on the one hand, there are complaints of sexual misconduct against Assange by two women in Sweden, which must be seen as a straightforward matter for law enforcement; on the other hand, there is his political activity, also his “attention-seeking,” “narcissism” and “arrogance,” which, come to think of it, sound a lot like traits in a rapist’s profile. Only rarely has anyone—notably Naomi Wolf and the team from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Four Corners program—begun with the intrinsic political challenge posed by WikiLeaks and proceeded from there to scrutinize the Swedish prosecutorial machinery.
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That machinery is tricky. Police were so quick to initiate the arrest process that one of the women who came to them—to see if Assange could be forced to take an STD test after she’d had unprotected sex with him—became distraught and refused to give further testimony. The Swedish prosecutor’s office issued an arrest warrant for rape and molestation on one day and withdrew it the next, saying there was no reason to suspect rape, and that the other claim wasn’t serious enough for a warrant. About a week later, the Swedish director of prosecution reopened the investigation, and a court later approved her request to detain Assange for rape, molestation and unlawful coercion. By then he was in London, having been told he was free to leave Sweden. Assange was working with the New York Times and the Guardian in advance of launching the Iraq War Logs when the Swedes issued an international arrest warrant. He was readying the release of a cache of diplomatic cables when Interpol got involved, issuing a “red notice” for his arrest. In London, his legal efforts to block extradition were rejected by the High Court—whose strained decision was praised by the New Statesman’s David Allen Green as the ultimate in reasoned justice—and by the UK Supreme Court.
If the Swedish claims against Assange had involved anything but sex, it’s unlikely that liberals, and even some self-described radicals, would be tiptoeing around this part of the story, either by asking “So I guess he’s a bad guy?” or by arguing “Of course he needs to answer for his crimes.” If it were anything but sex, we would insist on the presumption of innocence. We have instead gotten comfortable with presuming guilt and trusting in the dignified processes of law to guarantee fairness.
“Believe the victim” entered the lexicon decades ago for historically understandable reasons. Women had been denied their own due process, in a sense—their right to make a complaint and expect justice, not vilification or worse. They are still being denied and derided, as the idiot spewings of Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin illustrate. The mutation of basic rights into an imperative for belief, and of full citizens into victims, has not made women any safer, but its cultural manipulation—particularly in high-profile cases—has struck at the foundations of civil liberty in a way that may not have been anticipated.
So here is the spectacle of Assange, as yet unindicted, bearing the dual brand of Sex Offender and Terrorist, the subhuman beings of the twenty-first century. The fusing of abuse and terror in his case thus implies two victims who must be believed, the women and the state. But the women’s claims are murky, and the state is not credible.
It should be possible to imagine a resolution outside the criminal justice system for problems that arise in the course of consensual sexual coupling: dissatisfaction over the use (or ill use) of condoms, constraints that keep people from expressing their wishes or intuiting those of another, selfishness, insensitivity, confusions as “yes” slides into “no” and back to “yes,” perhaps wordlessly—all issues that seem to apply in the Assange case but exist beyond it. That will require a braver sexual politics (and at least another column), and it does not demean experience to recognize that the language of punishment is a poor substitute for the lost language of love.
About the state, though, there must be no illusions. A nation that goes to war on fraud, that insists “We don’t torture” when evidence to the contrary abounds, that kidnaps foreign nationals and puts them on planes to be delivered to dungeons, that spies on its people, asserts its right to lock them up indefinitely and lets documented CIA torturers off the hook of accountability because they were only following orders: that nation will plot, and it will double-cross, and it will kill. Sweden participated in the US program of extraordinary rendition. The United Kingdom has threatened to storm Ecuador’s embassy. The United States now says it does not recognize the historic right of persons to seek diplomatic asylum. Assange’s lawyers have said that he will go to Sweden if he gets an absolutely firm guarantee from the Obama administration that it will not arrest him. Such a guarantee is impossible in an empire of lies.