The first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to two men in 1901: Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, and an international pacifist named Frederic Passy. The Nobel committee ought to award the prize to Wikileaks. It would reward sunshine in government, and be a fitting acknowledgement of the Internet's capacity to change the world. It might also put the world's governments on notice that lies, even the boldest and biggest of lies, can purchase security for only so long.
Wikileaks is a new but powerful presence in the world. It was founded in 2006, and first appeared on line in January 2007. Although its founders have not been identified, it has been represented in the public since appearing online by Julian Assange. It operates under the slogan: "We open governments."
That is a bold and perhaps futile aspiration. Government thrives on secrecy; it is the custodian and beneficiary of one of the grandest mysteries of humankind -- the transformation of naked power used by one person over another into authority. This piece of social alchemy is what distringuishes a hoodlum's carjacking from the police seizure of an autmobile. Authority is power plus the badges, indicia and symbolism of what we call legitimacy. The trouble with this magic is that the magicians too often become transfixed by their own sorcery.
Can government ever be truly transparent in purpose and in operation? Can we the people every really be trusted to know what, in a republic, is done in our name? Governing in a democratic society takes place atop the volatile confrontation of the ideal of participatory democracy and the imperatives of power. Or, to put it more famously and elegantly: All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even in a society that aspires to be open, government hordes secrets its agents claim are too explosive for the world at large to know. A state seeks to seduce its people into believing that national security requires us to trust of those in the know. We the people, are not to be trusted; we must trust and obey, there is no other way.
And so we get government my misdirection, lie and deceit. And we prosecute people for demanding that government live up to the public faith we profess. A good citizen must be a good hypocrite, we learn. But there are no good hypocrites. There are only folks more inclined than others to make peace with lies. The price the lie-keepers exact for the uneasy conscience is authority. They lie to us, they tell us, because it is necessary to do so. Their lies protect us.
Wikileaks seeks to attack that logic at its source. The organization has published more than one million documents online since it was founded. The New York Times today reports that there are new relevaltions of deceit. More than a quarter of a million confidential diplomatic cables from the United States will soon be posted online. Administration officials are spitting nails and threatening criminal prosecutions.
We would not know as much as we know about extralegal killings in Kenya but for Wikileaks. The world's governments wanted that secret kept. Neither would we know near as much about what the United States has been up to in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Our government wanted those secrets kept from us. Trust and obey, the sovereign says.
Yesterday, Harold Hongju Koh, the State Department's top legal advisor, wrote to Wikileaks, claiming to put it on notice that new disclosures of these diplomatic cables could disrupt the nation's war on terror, endanger lives, and undermine efforts to thwart nuclear non-proliferation. The disclosures are illegal, Kohn intoned.
Perhaps. Or just maybe the cables will show the extent to which our government resorts routinely to lies and misdirection in the conduct of our affairs. Perhaps the truth is why we have so many enemies. Are we fooling the people of Yemen when its government tells its people that the bombs dropped on its territory against suspected al Qaeda camps were Yemeni, and not American? A cable describing a meeting between General David H. Petreaus and Ali Abdullah Saleh reports Saleh's laughing that he just lied to his own Parliament by telling it Yemeni forces had been engaged in the bomding.
And whose interests are served by hiding the success the Chinese government has had since 2002 in hacking into the computer systems of the American government and those of Western allies?
The Nobel Peace Prize seeks to recognize the work of those who promote "fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and... the holding and promotion of peace conferences." Publishing the world's secrets and putting them online for all to see takes power from the world's governments and gives it directly to the people. We can then confront those with a vested interest in standing armies and the badges and indicia of authority. This bold step may well promote peace.
Will it promote chaos? Sure. But who said chaos is bad? Only those folks pressing for order at all costs, and doing so with a gun held firmly in one hand. It is most likely a gun you paid for. And the person holding it is most likely a police officer or soldier living off the taxes you pay. What would be the harm in sharing information to stop hypocrties from killing in the name of justice?
UPDATE: Although Wikileaks promised to download the diplomatic cache, its site was targeted by cyber-espionage on Sunday afternoon, before it could publish. The Nation is providing live updated blogging on contents of the leaks before the Government or anyone else can shut it down. Here is a link. Read it while you can: http://www.thenation.com/blog/156701/blogging-wikileaks-release-return-here-all-day-updates