Julian Assange: Man of the Decade

by , December 28, 2010

This week will end 2010, the capstone year on a decade of profound change and turmoil and bloodshed – of moral and political lows, of war and ever-elusive peace, of rapidly degrading individual freedoms in favor of national and global “security.”

Billions if not trillions of dollars have been made in the business of war, while tens of thousands of people have perished, millions left homeless, maimed, orphaned, imprisoned. In the United States, society has become militarized and more criminalized, while police and politicians are increasingly less accountable for their own crimes and misdeeds. Citizens who long took for granted their constitutional right to privacy and protections against illegal search and seizure, line up to be humiliated by the state in new and more creative ways everyday day. Meanwhile, most Americans won’t demand the same scrutiny of their own government, allowing it to commit illegal, unconstitutional acts in their names, here and abroad.

It’s an old cliché, but the 9/11 terror attacks changed everything, and to act bewildered about where Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are coming from, with their demands of government transparency and accountability and of a corporate reckoning is as absurd as it is insincere. We all know where they come from. We created them.

No Space Oddity

Assange is hardly a “man who fell to earth,” though his detractors have long tried to paint him as an oddity, if not alien, like Ziggy Stardust (making love with his ego…).

No, he is a creation of the post-9/11 global reality and I think it is safe to say if there had been no Global War on Terror, binding the major governments of the world on a planetary battlefield, in a devil’s pact that not only forced world leaders to cower and bend to the Americans’ will, but to homogenized policies on surveillance, security, law enforcement and secrecy, there would be no WikiLeaks, at least to the earth-shifting extent it is today. And Julian Assange would be just another brilliant information activist, not a nearly martyred hero who has just dealt a blow to the solar plexus of the world order.

“[T]he United States is the center of a global empire, a state with a military presence in most countries which arrogates to itself the role of world leader and policeman,” wrote the Guardian‘s Seumas Milne, shortly after the start of WikiLeaks’ latest and biggest information bomb yet, the slow release of some 250,000 classified U.S. State Department cables. This followed the release this summer of 75,000 classified military field reports from Afghanistan and a video documenting the 2007 “collateral murder” of Iraqi civilians by a U.S. Army gunship in Iraq.

“When genuine checks on how it exercises that entirely undemocratic power are so weak at home, let alone in the rest of the world it still dominates,” Milne continued, “it’s both inevitable and right that people everywhere will try to find ways to challenge and hold it to account.”

“People everywhere” have been trying, for close to a decade, but mostly through lawsuits and traditional protests. Sure, the demonstrations have been big and boisterous, and incremental victories are won in the courtroom from time to time, but overall they have been almost completely ineffective. The mixed climate of desperation and futility, of anger and disgust was just calling out for a new way to challenge the system, not by the old rules, on a playing field the establishment had already learned to game out, but on one that would not only confound corrupt leaders and systems, but would act as a beacon for those, who for whatever reason – ignorance or apathy – had yet to take up the cause.

“WikiLeaks is really one of the very few, if not the only group, effectively putting fear into the hearts of the world’s most powerful and corrupt people, and that’s why they deserve, I think, enthusiastic support from anyone who truly believes in transparency,” said writer and constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald, in a Dec. 3 interview on Democracy Now!

As he pointed out, the WikiLeaks formula, of providing to the press leaked information illuminating state crime and corruption, was first attempted (and succeeded) in places like Kenya , West Africa, Peru, and Iceland. It was in Iceland, in fact, where the people passed tough whistleblower protections in gratitude for WikiLeaks’ assistance in exposing improprieties and alleged crimes committed by executives at the Kaupthing Bank, the largest bank in Iceland, ahead of that country’s crippling financial crisis.

Then WikiLeaks started exposing the rot and hypocrisy festering inside the GWOT, and for that Assange has become an international pariah. In response, Washington’s power elite – including the Pentagon, the White House and Congress, not to mention the press – are trying to discredit WikiLeaks, accusing the organization of putting innocent lives at stake, of being anarchists and criminals and the biggest privacy violators of all. The U.S. government may yet produce charges of espionage against Julian Assange, while lawmakers and the rabid right-wing punditry have called for imprisoning, if not killing the man in cold blood.

But even if Assange were to waste away in Gitmo (an executive order expected to be signed soon by the president would allow for his indefinite detention, even without charge, if apprehended as an “enemy combatant” or “terrorist”), you can’t stuff this genie back into the bottle, as the old cliché goes. Aside from the fact that there are tens of thousands of cables in the current WikiLeaks trove that have yet to be published, there are already WikiLeaks offshoots and copycats working off the new template. World governments and perhaps now corporations like Bank of America, will not only have to suffer the blows, they will have to react and recalibrate, and while the establishment apologists have predicted chaos, and ultimately less transparency, only time will tell.

Never Going Back

But only the most fascistic and self-serving, the most naïve and gullible, the most serious of courtiers and the most tireless of state supplicants would want to go back to the way it was.

This was a decade of so many missed opportunities, and mostly because “people power” as we know it failed. It failed to overturn the most egregious measures in the PATRIOT Act, it failed to hold leaders accountable for deceiving the American people about Iraq, about illegally spying on American citizens, about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It failed to hold President Obama to his promise to close Gitmo. It failed to end the war.

Talk about the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, for a good scare, read the Washington Post‘s latest on “Monitoring America.” It might be of some surprise that there were 161,948 “suspicious activity” files on record today in Washington in a growing FBI database, ironically called “The Guardian.” The files, fed by daily local, state, federal –even defense – sources, include dossiers on American citizens who have not been charged or accused of any crime other than they had been reported as “acting suspiciously” by “a town sheriff, a traffic cop or even a neighbor.”

(So when an establishment tools like David Brooks say the conversations of profligate and venal diplomats and government officials must be sanctified, ask when he has last spilled a drop of ink over the abuse of ordinary citizens’ privacy.)

Julian Assange has made the old rules obsolete. The clock has stopped, and for the first time in a decade, the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon – not to mention world leaders, corporations, even the Vatican – are on the defensive. How it will play out we don’t know – but like in the wake of 9/11, nothing will ever be the same.

Happy New Year, Happy New Decade.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos