Whatever we think about the propriety or legality of confidential state department documents being leaked to Julian Assange and published by him on WikiLeaks, we ought to recoil from the most bloodthirsty rhetoric following the latest releases from the controversial site. By no stretch of the imagination has Assange, who, it must be recalled, did not himself steal the disputed documents, done anything to deserve killing. But that's the implication, both in ex-Governor Palin's vague demand that he be hunted down like an al-Qaeda terrorist and, more obviously, in a Canadian conservative spokesman's express wish for Assange's assassination. They aren't the only ones; the comment threads on Assange-related articles form a virtual mob baying for real blood. Many share Palin's misplaced assumption that Assange, an Australian most recently resident in Sweden, is a "traitor" with "blood on his hands." The most one can conclude from WikiLeaks is that Assange clearly isn't "with us." For many people, that means he is "against us," an enemy whose work, if it doesn't benefit "us," must benefit "the terrorists," or the other myriad enemies of America or of "freedom" itself. The virtual lynch mob formed against him reduces the Bushite equation to its simplest terms: you're either with us, or you should die.
By comparison, there is modest cause for concern in the reflexive dismissal by Assange's supporters of the rape charges lodged against him by the Swedish government. Alexander Cockburn, predictably, characterizes the charges as trumped up and politically motivated, following up an ad hominem attack on Assange's accuser while indulging in a typical misogynist skepticism of high-profile rape charges in general. In our time it's probably impossible to rule out entirely a political motive to the charges. At the same time, we should be careful about any implicit grant of "partisan immunity" to anyone. In a politicized environment there does seem to be a slippery slope descending from a presumption of innocence via a suspicion of "criminalizing politics" toward placing someone like Assange above the law. Some may say that anyone who defends him for WikiLeaks, leaving the rape charge out of it, has already granted Assange a dangerous privilege. But there should be a middle ground that allows, on admittedly revolutionary grounds, for the importance of Assange's disclosures without conferring upon him the absolute lawless freedom of an indispensable man. Of course, no one is going to say that Assange has the right to get away with rape; whoever defends him will simply say that he's innocent. But a politicized refusal to take the Swedish charges seriously, or an unwillingness to acknowledge that, if guilty, he should go to jail, can't help but confer an implicit antinomian license upon him. That isn't equivalent to conferring upon anyone a license to kill Assange, but the moral complexities of his story should be approached with caution by everyone.