Dante put traitors in the final circle of hell, but does Bradley Manning really belong there?

The treacherous cut a dash in ethics as well as style, risking everything for principle

Justice is busy at the moment, if not as busy as some might think it should be, given the crimes committed by the hour in Syria and Egypt. Though there, where words are made to mean the opposite of what they do mean, where liberators murder and democrats steal freedoms, we have still to make our minds up whom to blame. But elsewhere the wheels turn, whether to our satisfaction or not.

Only open a newspaper or switch on the television and there’s someone being arraigned or led away. Is half the planet on the way to prison? There’s poor Oscar Pistorius with his hands folded in front of him, as though waiting for the handcuffs, for all the world a stricken choirboy who doesn’t know why he’s been kicked out of the choir. Is that terror or contrition he is showing? Poor Bo Xilai similarly crosses his hands before him in deference to the imaginary cuffs.

I remember standing like that when I was called in to see the headmaster. Whether Bo Xilai wears no jacket because it’s hot in the courtroom, or because he hopes to come across as vulnerable, or because the authorities want him to look stripped of power already, I have no idea. But he appears smaller out of his Ruling Communist Party suit than he ever did in it. And there, miles from home, are the drug mules, poor Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid, chained like the wildest of convicts, though if all the above are guilty as charged, then they are the least guilty of the lot.

Don’t take my use of the word “poor” to denote a presumption of innocence. What do I know? Only this: that it’s no fun being any of them.

And then, the saddest by far, poor little Private First Class Bradley Manning, born into alcohol and gender confusion, uncertain about everything in the universe, in particular himself, being led away to serve 35 years in prison – though he probably won’t – on a number of charges including espionage and being schmuck enough to trust Julian Assange.

I’d like to say you can forgive the first but not the second, but it isn’t what I think. Perhaps because we feel oppressed by a universal squalor, convinced the state is spying on us (though in fact the state’s too busy to bother and our secrets aren’t interesting enough), we are of a mind to revere whistleblowers. And where what they are blowing the whistle on is the incompetence of NHS managers, the rapacity of money men or the brute cynicism of the multinationals, we are right to revere them.

As for blowing the whistle on state secrets, I am in two minds. In fact, I’m probably in more. But let’s keep it simple. If you have a tale of corruption to tell, tell it – always provided you don’t thereby give information or succour to other states which are of necessity every bit as bad as your own and, what is more, mean it harm. And if you don’t think there’s anyone out there who means your country harm, if you don’t, that’s to say, understand the necessity, in any number of instances, for secrecy, then you deserve to go down for another 35 years, the charge being moral infancy.

That we would make the whole issue less clouded if we stopped stigmatising our enemies as terrorists I entirely agree. Not all of those who wish us ill are terrorists. Indeed – though I think there are terrorists out there aplenty – many who do wish us ill think we are more terroristical than they are and might be justified in thinking so. But that is not the point. We have a right to want to survive, to protect some of what we have, unjust and imperfect as it is, and those who give away the means by which we seek to survive are properly to be described, not as whistleblowers, who sound like playground mischief-makers at worst, but traitors.

The word carries, and should carry, a great weight of opprobrium. It was for the traitors, remember, that Dante reserved the final circle of hell, that frozen lake in which the breakers of sacred trust are locked for ever, and where, to quote from Clive James’s brilliant new translation of La Divina Commedia, “the frost tied their tears between them”.

Though I think that for Assange we need a further hellish circle, where an even icier vanity freezes those tears before they flow.

“All men should have a drop of treason in their veins,” Dame Rebecca West wrote. I know what she means. We must be fractured in our belief systems. It is partly about dandyism for her too. “Treason has a certain style,” she went on, “a sort of elegance.” But then she hadn’t seen poor Bradley Manning, who doubtless hoped for a bit of that style to rub off on him. It rubs off on our own assessment of treason, however, the glamour of the traitor reflecting our suspicions of the patriot. Where only the quiescent and the fanatical are loyal, the traitor cuts a dash in ethics as well as style, offering to risk everything in the name of principle.

But that being the case, shouldn’t he accept the logic of those risks and not complain when those whose secrets he’s purloined turn ugly? That man’s no hero whose adversary is a pussycat. The Brazilian partner of the journalist who’s been hugger-mugger with that latest delusional fantasist, Edward Snowden, might have cause to feel aggrieved at being held under anti-terror laws for nine hours, but the company we keep is not immaterial when secrets are jumping from computer to computer. Man to man I wish him no harm, but the security services exist to keep us secure. If the state’s the paranoid beast we say it is, we can’t expect it to roll over to have its tummy tickled.