At the height of the purported cocaine “epidemic” in the US in the 1980s, politicians and law enforcement officials felt something had to be done. What Congress did was to pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986: one of the most draconian, overtly racist pieces of legislation in US history. The law introduced mandatory minimum sentences, including an astonishing 5 years in federal prison for the possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine. What moved the law from the medieval to the outright racist, however, was the fact that in order to spend the same 5 years in prison for possession of powder cocaine, one would have to be caught with 500 grams of the substance. In other words, there was a 100:1 sentencing disparity between convictions for possession of crack versus powder cocaine. Expensive powder cocaine tended to be the drug of choice for upper-middle class suburban kids and white-collar bankers, while much cheaper crack was favoured by poorer drug users. Despite such a blatant discriminatory factor, it took 26 years to pass the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which pushed the sentencing ratio down from an outlandishly racist 100:1 to an outrageously racist 18:1.
What does this have to do with hacking and whistleblowing?
A lot. At the most basic level, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 stripped bare any pretence that justice in the US was blind, or that the scales were calibrated so that no preference would be given to a particular citizen on the basis of race or socio-economic status. The law sent a loud, unambiguous message that there are two sets of rules in the US: one for those with power and social capital, and one for the rest. Thus, when it was widely reported in the wake of his suicide that the hacker and programmer Aaron Swartz was facing 35 years in prison for illegally downloading academic articles from the JSTOR system, it became clear to many unfamiliar with the case just how skewed the US legal system is, and the extent to which prosecutors were willing to go to “make an example” of someone whose greatest crime was downloading articles that academics provide to publishers for free, which are then re-sold to those same academics for a healthy profit. JSTOR itself did not wish to press charges, but the prosecution went ahead, with a computer hacker facing more years in prison for downloading journal articles about Emily Dickinson and film theory than any Wall Street CEO, Blackwater executive or corrupt politician.
When we speak of state violence, we tend to think of overt acts of physical violence against the body: the death penalty, police brutality or warfare being classic examples. Violence, however, is not relegated only to the application of pain, but can also include the limiting of physical and psychological freedom. As such, imprisonment is a significant act of violence, and is, along with the ability to take a life through capital punishment or warfare, a significant power afforded to states. Financial sanctions may cripple a person economically, but if they are still free to walk the streets, play with their children or engage in the many simple acts that make up the day-to-day existence of a human being, then that person still retains the core elements of dignity and humanity. I cannot believe that someone would be denied these for a quarter century for the crime of downloading academic articles; nor, for that matter, can I fathom the UK sending Anonymous hackers Christopher Weatherhead and Ashley Rhodes to prison for 18 and seven months respectively for the crime of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against PayPal, Visa and Mastercard. This, while the former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Sir Fred Goodwin, walks free after taking home a salary of £1.3 million, while overseeing the biggest loss in British corporate history, £24 billion.
In addition to hackers we have whistleblowers, none more famous than Bradley Manning, who also faces the possibility of spending the better part of his life behind bars. Already confined for almost 1000 days, and initially placed in solitary confinement, Manning is accused of placing the security of the United States in jeopardy by providing classified documents to WikiLeaks. A portion of the information he leaked was footage (now known as the “Collateral Murder Video”) showing the killing of civilians by a US attack helicopter in Iraq. The irony is, were Manning a Chinese, Iranian or Cuban soldier who had exposed potential war crimes committed by his government, his solitary confinement and impending life sentence would be held up as evidence of the barbarity and anti-democratic tendencies of the “regimes” in question, and calls would be made for his release on “humanitarian” grounds. As it is, Manning (like Swartz) is being given the 1986 crack cocaine treatment by the US government: the threat of a wildly excessive prison sentence, at odds with both logic and law, for the purpose of crushing the individual in question.
If the message of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was that the poor and minorities needed learn their place in an America ruled by white elites, then what is the message being sent in relation to Manning, Swartz and the two Anonymous hackers in the UK? Much the same as in the case of crack versus powder, actually. While the US and UK make geopolitical hay out of their commitment to free speech and democracy, dissenters and activists must learn their place. They are useful to the neoliberal project in that they show that moderate dissent is tolerated; but once that dissent crosses the line and trespasses upon the sacred turf of corporate profits and military power, then action must be taken. If that means sending a man to prison for life for exposing potential war crimes, or driving a man to suicide for downloading academic articles, so be it.
Christian Christensen is professor of Journalism, Media & Communication Studies at Stockholm University, Sweden.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.