John Colson: Hit and Run
December 31, 2010
I’ve got a feeling I’m about to piss off some people who might otherwise agree with me, but hey, such is the price of free expression.
And freedom of expression, better known as freedom of speech, is what this column is all about.
When the Wikileaks site released thousands of pages of secret documents revealing that our government and others are a bunch of gossip-mongering, bribe-taking plutocrats, the world’s ruling class reacted in horror, fear and calls for the head of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on a platter. Literally.
Forces around the world who believe government has the right to act secretly, and by extension criminally, in some cases, have screeched that he should get the death penalty for revealing that the emperor has no clothes. There have been death threats against him, according to some reports, and he went into hiding because he believed those threats were real.
Now, he is out on bail, fighting charges of sex crimes involving two women he slept with in Sweden. The charges, interestingly enough, were dropped at one point after they first came up in August, presumably because Swedish prosecutors did not think they had a viable case.
The charges were then reinstated in early December, coinciding with the release of the above-mentioned documents.
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I view this whole mess from two perspectives.
First is the point of view that sex crimes need to be investigated and prosecuted if warranted, no question, no doubt. Women should not be subjected to sexual barbarity by the men in their lives, and the history of male-dominated judicial systems winking an eye and giving sexual predators a pass in too many cases is a sorry tale.
But there are a lot of questions that have yet to be answered in this particular case, such as why the two women apparently did not think of filing charges against Assange until after they had met and compared notes. Then there is the abandonment of the case by prosecutors in Sweden, and the reinstatement of those charges, along with international warrants and all the media noise that goes with them, on Dec. 3, the date that The Guardian newspaper published the leaked documents.
Thus we arrive at my other perspective: That of a working journalist who admires whistle-blowers of all stripes, because they peel back the fog and blankets of secrecy that governments everywhere use to keep their activities out of the public eye.
Think about it. If not for Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, released in 1971, would we ever have gotten out of Vietnam? Or would we now be fighting three wars around the world, in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan? There’s no telling, unless someone figures out a way to peek into the alternate universe where Ellsberg was caught, shot or disappeared before he got the Pentagon Papers out to the public.
There is rising hysteria in certain quarters over claims that the sex crimes charges against Assange will lose traction thanks to a continuing bias against women in a male-dominated world. I don’t think that’s true.
But what I think may well be true is the idea, believed by many observers, that the U.S. government is pushing these charges, using accusations that were once deemed insufficient for prosecution to get their hands on a man they consider a threat to their way of doing business.
Ellsberg, interestingly enough, said much the same thing recently. He recalled that he was branded a traitor when the Pentagon Papers came out, and that the government did all it could to discredit him, have him declared insane, all sorts of dirty tricks just short of accusing him of rape.
And, he said, if he were doing his whistle-blowing now, instead of nearly 40 years ago, he would have been called a terrorist too.
Assange is not a terrorist, he is a man who believes governments can go too far and need to be exposed in their wrongdoing. For that he should not be prosecuted, he should get a medal for exercising his right to free speech.
He may also have committed crimes against the two women, and if so, he should be prosecuted for that.
But we should all insist that the case against him be conducted under a clear, cold light so we know exactly what we’re talking about.