The news that über-leaker Julian Assange has been arrested by the British police has the weight of tragic inevitability about it. Like Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, Assange has angered the great powers, and he will suffer grievously for it.
Perhaps it will be the bogus “rape” charge that fells him, one pursued internationally with suspicious vigour by the Swedish forces of law and order, after some initial vacillation. How many people are hunted around the world by Interpol for engaging in unprotected sex?
Or maybe it will be equally trumped-up charges of “treason.” One way or the other, though, the young Australian man who shone a spotlight of enormous megawattage upon the internal mechanisms of Realpolitik is now in the latter’s toils.
Jeff Sallot makes two commonsense points in today’s Ottawa Citizen. First, the material has caused considerable embarrassment, but, as he says, “the US government has been unable to identify a single individual who has been assassinated, assaulted, or harassed” as a result of the leaks. Second, 60,000 or so people already had access to the documents in question.
Even embarrassment is intolerable in the world of statecraft, however, and the founder of Wikileaks has been taken out for now (if not in the Tom Flanagan sense), while Wikileaks itself is being hounded from country to country, the flame only kept alive by a substantial underground busily producing mirror sites.
Some readers will object to my use of the photograph above: a brave and anonymous Chinese civilian stopping a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square twenty-one years ago. Assange, people will say, is no hero: he’s a narcissist running a team of hard-pressed volunteers, operating from the safety of his various basement locations, gleefully causing an international uproar.
But both demonstrate the apparent futility of one individual confronting state power. The man in Tiananmen Square did not stop those tanks for long, and Assange will not stop the states that he has offended by divulging a handful of diplomatic cables, even with the threat of more damaging document dumps.
Searching for lessons in all this, one wonders what the conduct of foreign affairs might be like if everything were done out in the open. Just as video cameras have in recent times torn away the myth of police rectitude to the point that ordinary folks right across the political spectrum are appalled, so too Assange has breached the facade of international diplomacy behind which old hatreds thrive, wars are planned, and our collective fate is determined in the dark.
Assange’s character is irrelevant: he has started a process whose time may have come. Like privacy, state secrecy could conceivably be something that will henceforward have to be negotiated with ordinary citizens. But that is, I fear, an overly optimistic view. Assange’s arrest signals nothing less than a brute-force return to the status quo ante effluvium.
Given the fluidity of cyberspace, we’ll see how long that lasts. We can be sure, however, that tremendous resources are currently being devoted to ensuring that nothing of this sort ever happens again. Even the wildest frontiers, at least historically, have proven susceptible to being tamed: the Internet may well turn out to be no exception. And that collateral damage may be the only genuine casualty—a major one—in this affair.
[H/t Le Daro]