Activist and whistleblower Chelsea Manning, despite being incarcerated for seven years, thinks that even the freest man living in America is living in a prison. Does she have a point?

American citizens are conditioned from an early age to believe they live in the “freest” country on earth (their words).  U.S whistle-blower Chelsea Manning thinks otherwise.

The former servicewoman spent seven years in prison for leaking army secrets and, after being pardoned by then-President Barak Obama in 2017, rather than celebrating her newfound liberty, has been very critical about the land of the so-called free.

“We really built this large, big prison, which is the United States,” she said during an interview at the Royal Institution in London, UK in October 2018. Manning then went on to list surveillance systems and police presence – which she compared to an occupying army – in addition to border walls as contributing to feeling of imprisonment in the U.S.

While it’s true the U.S incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other country by far – with around 2.2 million jailed at the end of 2016, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics – Manning is still able to legally live in her country as a transgender woman, speak freely about her experience and criticise her government. Millions of people around the world cannot say the same. In fact, America is well known for trumpeting its freedoms – of speech, of education, the right to buy a gun. The U.S, the European Union and other developed societies are where oppressed central American migrants dangerously flock to and African refugees risk their families’ lives to reach. All for freedom.

The US abolished slavery in 1865 and women earned the right to vote in 1920 and yet, its freedoms have been subtly eroded since the 1960s, when the country’s cultural landscape seemed to shift. A poignant moment came in 1969 when Charles Manson’s “family” went on a bloody killing spree across Los Angeles. People cowered in their homes, after finding out these so-called “free spirits” had randomly murdered people. As a result, police powers increased. Frequently, positions of authority were abused, and a clampdown on minority groups was rife over both the West and East coast.

Over the next few decades, western politicians recognised fear as a powerful tool and, since 9/11 – the deadliest foreign attack on US soil in history – this has only intensified. Westerners who can remember the ’70s and ’80s would largely agree that the Soviet societies of the time weren’t “free” by their standards. There were reports of widespread government surveillance of citizens, intrusion into private communication and zero tolerance of dissenting opinion. Yet the U.S government today has incredible powers to snoop on its citizens, many made possible by the Patriot Act, which was signed off by President George W. Bush immediately after the September 11 attacks. The government claims it has the power to detain anyone, including Americans, as “enemy combatants” without charge, indefinitely. The National Security Agency has the power to effectively spy on any phone call made in the U.S and read any email. The police today wield a great deal of power. Officers killed 998 people across the country last year, according to the Washington Post, some simply for not obeying orders quickly enough. Ironically, these huge infringements on people’s freedom are sold to them as essential – a necessary evil that ultimately protects their freedom.

Making matters worse, we’re all spying on each other. Everyone carries a smartphone and no one is afraid to use it. The simple act of flipping a middle finger at the President’s motorcade could get you fired from your job – as cyclist Juli Briskman recently found out in 2017. Even the rich and famous are suffering. A paparazzi in Los Angeles recently told me: “In 2005 you’d see Leonardo DiCaprio walking down Hollywood Boulevard with his pals, not a care in the world. Now everyone has a phone and celebrities don’t want to be seen. They’re paranoid, they stay away locked up in their mansions.” 

It’s important to fight for our personal freedoms, and to keep the powers that be in check. But it’s also important to remember that freedoms enjoyed by developed societies often come at the expense of others. Charity Free The Slaves cites there are around 40 million people living in slavery around the world, despite it being outlawed in every country. Ten million of them are children. These people are in every country, including the U.S, and these are the people we should be working to free first. 

So, if Chelsea Mannings sees the U.S as a prison, it might also be worth acknowledging that it’s still the most luxurious and prosperous one on the planet.