We’ve been here before in history. The most famous case was a man two thousand years ago that was allegedly nailed to a cross – not because he was a man who supposedly went around saying naughty things that the government didn’t like, but because he was a symbol. Okay, that story is probably not true, but it serves its function here as an example.
Similarly, it was not the teenage peasant’s daughter that was burned on the pyre by the English clerics in the Hundred Year War, it was the Maiden of France. When the CIA supported forces of Bolivia caught up with Che Guevara in La Higuera, the complicated man who has either been described as a ruthless executioner of unarmed prisoners or a hero of the people, was put on display to the world to show that he was really, really dead.
The authorities of the time thought that if they punished the human, they would tarnish and destroy the symbol. As they found out, things doesn’t quite work that way in real life.
Symbols are more threatening than mere men and women. Symbols are what light the fires in the bellies of imagination and resentment, and make people cross from the mundane suffering of ordinary pains of existence into that twilight zone of activist agency.
It can be a twisted agency, like supremely convinced SS officers gunning down civilians and Jews in occupied Europe because of their twisted ideals. It can be a heroic agency, like Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg that threw away his career and fortune and ultimately his life for the thousands of Jews that he saved.
The symbols needn’t be pleasant people, not even the heroic ones, as shown by the example of Che Guevara. In some ways, the nature of symbols is that their real selves are lost somewhere between the ordinary life they spring from and the act that define their idealistic agency.
The real person is gone, and only the symbol remains. That symbol is necessarily reduced, refined, and reshaped into something that can be consumed as the distillation of an ideal.
When all the humanity has been boiled away from the symbol, only the essence of the idea carried remain. And it’s powerful stuff, that. It is this idea that can cause revolutions and uprisings and transformations. The human that started it was just the conduit that is consumed in the distillation.
Today Bradley Manning was given his sentence, and it was a harsh one. Thirty five years. It has already drawn gasps at the scope of it. It was harsh and cruel because the authorities won’t be punishing the man. They will punish the symbol.
It is the same mechanic that always seem to be re-enacted in these cases. The uniformed military officer inspecting the corpse of Che. The Roman soldiers poking their spears into the corpse of Christ. I’m sure that high prelates inspected to charred remains of Joan of Arc and were as eager to publish the findings as the Romans or Bolivia, because by publishing the findings they hoped to destroy the symbol.
Just like the Romans two thousand years ago, the authorities believe that by punishing the human extraordinarily much, they will destroy the symbol. By being cruel, they will assume that people will refrain from adopting the symbol.
Unfortunately for the Romans and the English and for the Americans, they will find that the punishment is often part of the distillation. Often it is a required part. Often the man needs to be carried off the stage so that the symbol can take on a life of its own. Sometimes the world honours its martyrs, and not so much the contented multitude that sit at home in safety and type angry things on the internet.
That old example from ancient Judea light a change, a transformation, a revolution that have echoed through the millennia till this day. Joan of Arc steeled the resolve and the ambition of France to throw out the English. Who knows what the symbol of Bradley Manning will inspire. But it certainly has, already, taken on a life of its own, hasn’t it? And now that Manning will be carried off the stage into his unjust punishment, who knows what the distilled symbol that remains will lead to.