Jack Teixeira has a choice. He may not recognize it yet, but soon enough he will. And when he does, his choice could create a thorny challenge for the forgiving society many of us want to build.
Teixeira is the 21-year-old former member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard accused of leaking classified documents on Discord servers. The choice I have in mind is not the one faced by every criminal defendant—namely, whether to negotiate with the government or hazard a trial. Teixeira obviously has that choice, but given what appears to be overwhelming evidence against him, that hardly seems like much of an option. The odds are good Teixeira will strike some kind of deal with the United States Government to minimize his punishment by admitting his guilt.
No, the choice he has is whether to paint himself on the one hand as a heroic truth-teller martyred by a war-mongering liberal political establishment, or on the other hand as a chastened young man who made a terrible mistake but who loves his country and would never intentionally do her any harm.
It’s clear these two choices are available to him. In some conservative circles, the former portrayal—Martyred Jack—is already taking shape. Shortly after his arrest, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) tweeted, “Jake (sic) Teixeira is white, male, christian, and antiwar. That makes him an enemy to the Biden regime. And he told the truth about troops being on the ground in Ukraine and a lot more. Ask yourself who is the real enemy?” Greene has been widely ridiculed for her remarks, but she is hardly alone. Tucker Carlson of FOX News said Teixeira was arrested for telling the truth about what Carlson calls an illegal war in Ukraine. “He revealed the crimes, therefore he’s the criminal. That’s how Washington works. Telling the truth is the only real sin.”
On a pro-Trump message board, members were quick to echo these views and to paint Teixeira as a conservative hero. As VICE News reported, “Among the numerous threads dedicated to his arrest were ones titled: ‘Fucking Legend’ ‘May God Watch Over Him,’ and ‘American Hero Busted for Telling the Truth.’” For his part, Donald Trump, Jr., urged his Twitter followers to “imagine the level of hero Jack Teixeira would be to the media & to the left if he leaked that the Trump Administration was waging an unlawful war against a nuclear super-power without the knowledge of the people or the approval of Congress?” Journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted much the same thing.
Importantly, this nascent foundation is the answer to those who say that Teixeira seemed motivated not by any desire to be a whistleblower in the vein of Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, but by a juvenile need to impress his young online friends. If people offer this to suggest Teixeira must sleep in the bed made for him at the time of his arrest, they haven’t been paying attention these past years. Does anyone seriously believe, for instance, that if Donald Trump followed his son’s lead and embraced Teixeira as a truth-telling hero, the populist Right would not fall in line behind him? To ask the question is to answer it.
On the other hand, the opposite portrayal is also available to Teixeira. In articles that appeared after his arrest, friends from Discord described him as an All-American Catholic boy who loved his God, his country, and his guns. As the Washington Post reported, these friends were convinced “Teixeira didn’t seek to undermine national security but hoped to teach the mostly younger members on his server ‘a better view of the issue the only way he knew how. He loved America but simply didn’t feel confident in its future. At the end of the day he would side with this country over any other.’” And don’t take his anti-Semitic and racist online rants seriously, one of his friends said. That was just Jack showing off for the youngsters—his online family—and not who he really is.
How Mr. Teixeira ultimately casts himself is a personal choice that does not particularly interest me. Like anyone else, he should be free to construct his identity as he chooses. As a strategic matter, it might make sense for him to try to have it both ways. While the charges against him are pending, he might have an interest in portraying himself as the chastened, remorseful youngster in order to secure the best negotiation from the government and the shortest sentence from the judge. After he has been sentenced, however, he might have an interest in casting himself as a right-wing martyr in order to secure a pardon from a Republican president. On the latter, recall that Chelsea Manning was pardoned by President Obama. I would be very surprised if Teixeira were not engaging in precisely this sort of calculus with his lawyers and family.
Yet if Mr. Teixeira’s choice is for him alone, the same cannot be said for society’s reaction to it.
Think about the social meaning of his choice. If Teixeira casts himself as a martyr, he positions himself outside the law and its enforcement machinery. He portrays his conduct as a form of heroic civil disobedience, a righteous protest against an illegal and immoral war-mongering machine. Yes, he will be prosecuted and punished, but only because the law is unjust and corrupt. He martyrs himself to bring society to its senses. But if he casts himself as a chastened young man, he accepts the legitimacy of the law and its enforcement. He will be punished because he made a grievous mistake that he will never repeat and for which he hopes the system will not judge him too harshly.
In short, the martyr hopes society will come to him, while the chastened young man hopes he can come back to society. The martyr wants to change society; the chastened young man wants to change himself.
For those of us who want to build a forgiving society, Teixeira’s choice presents a difficult but fundamental challenge: Does social forgiveness depend on accepting the legitimacy of society’s rules? Put differently, can society forgive Teixeira, or any wrongdoer, if they insist they have done no moral wrong? In fact, if they insist that society is the one in the wrong? What, in other words, can a forgiving society legitimately demand from a transgressor as a condition of forgiveness?
It turns out these are questions of surprising complexity. I’m going to do my best to answer them in coming essays but I confess my views are tentative; I hope I can count on my readers to set me right. You have never hesitated to tell me exactly what you think, and I hope you don’t stop now.