Tighe Barry stood in a cool breeze at the corner of 22nd and C streets in Foggy Bottom wearing nothing but a jockstrap and goose bumps.
A small sign hanging around his neck said: “I am Bradley Manning.”
“Bradley Manning is being held stripped naked in prison today,” Barry shouted, as police guarding the State Department grinned. “This is all wrong, and that’s why I’m not wearing clothes today!”
Moments later, Barry turned and gave onlookers the full Manning.
All men should have the right to wear athletic supporters in public — even those, like Barry, with age-related sagging. But I don’t see why he and so many others have their knickers in a twist over Manning.
Manning, the 23-year-old soldier accused of divulging government secrets to WikiLeaks, has been ordered to remove his boxer shorts before going to sleep out of fear he might use them to end his life.
This is ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid — doesn’t the Pentagon know that boxers are far less lethal than briefs? — and State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley correctly said the brig’s handling of Manning “is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.” For this truth telling, Crowley was forced to resign — and the underwear flap became a wedge issue.
On the left, Manning is hailed as a hero and a whistle-blower for stealing and then making public thousands of classified government documents. The Pentagon, meanwhile, sees Manning as a traitor. The naked truth is Manning was neither a hero nor a traitor but a misguided kid flying by the seat of his underpants.
A brief explanation is in order.
Crowley, a 26-year Air Force veteran and retired colonel, had it right when he spoke to a Harvard group. After his claim that the treatment of Manning was stupid, he added: “Nonetheless, Bradley Manning is in the right place” because “there is sometimes a need for secrets.”
Liberal supporters of WikiLeaks and Manning have a rather elastic view of Crowley’s remarks, embracing the suggestion Manning’s been mistreated but ignoring the contention he belongs in the brig. On Monday, street-theater performers were in full costume outside the State Department, wearing prison jumpsuits (or jockstraps) and carrying a banner proclaiming: “Crowley is right.”
“Could you explain why we’re naked here, please?” Barry whispered to his colleagues. They were naked because they were trying to lionize Manning as a champion of open and transparent government.
“I don’t think these qualify as whistle-blowing,” said Steven Aftergood, a longtime transparency advocate. There were important disclosures, but the leaks also may have put at risk many lives. “It was not exposing misconduct. It was sticking a thumb in the government’s eye.”
The Pentagon seems to be acknowledging it mishandled Manning. Prosecutors have indicated that they will not seek the death penalty, and jailers arranged for him to wear a non-lethal sleeping garment in lieu of his boxers.
Now it’s time for Manning’s fans to accept that he’s not necessarily the champion of freedom they have made him out to be. It’s one thing to demand his right to partake of the Fruit of the Loom. It’s another thing to make him into a martyr.
Barry, the nearly naked man, said he sees a fig-leaf compromise: Manning could be reunited with his boxers but, for his own safety, denied the more elastic tighty-whities.
“That makes sense to me,” said the man in the jockstrap. “I’m a boxers man.”
DANA MILBANK’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington, D.C., 20071. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.