When Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) was thirteen, the US government announced it had launched "Operation Infinite Justice". Operation Infinite Justice sought to punish the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 attacks, destroy Al Qaeda, and end the reign of the Taliban. Operation Infinite Justice was renamed "Operation Enduring Freedom" after protests from Islamic scholars, who argued that God, not the US government, was the arbiter of justice. But freedom, it seemed, was something the United States could give and take away.
When Manning was fourteen, the Bush administration announced that detainees in Guantanamo did not deserve protection under the Geneva conventions and that torture was justified. When Manning was fifteen, the US invaded Iraq in response to fabricated reports that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. When Manning was sixteen, US soldiers tortured and sodomised prisoners in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. When Manning was seventeen, a movement emerged to prosecute the Bush administration for war crimes. Nothing really came of it.
When Manning was nineteen, she joined the army.
When Manning was twenty, the US economy collapsed and millions of Americans lost their income and savings, and the people who caused the collapse were given massive bailouts. A movement emerged to prosecute corrupt bankers and traders for corporate crimes. Nothing really came of it.
When Manning was 21, she was deployed to Iraq, six years after President Bush waved the "Mission Accomplished" banner.
When Manning was 22, she downloaded hundreds of thousands of classified materials detailing prison abuse and civilian massacre in Iraq. She sent them to Wikileaks. In April 2010, Wikileaks released a video called Collateral Murder, showing US forces firing on civilians, including children. In May 2010, Manning was arrested.
When Manning was 25, she was convicted for violations of the Espionage Act and sentenced to 35 years in prison. She argued that the US had consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It was never my intent to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people," she wrote in a letter to President Obama. "When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others."
When Manning was 25, she sought justice, and lost her freedom.
"A nation of laws"
Chelsea Manning, like Edward Snowden, is of a generation that came of age as American institutions eroded. Their country is unrecognisable from what it was at the turn of the millennium, when officials struggled with problems like how to spend the budget surplus accumulated during years of peace.
Since the start of the "war on terror", the United States has become a war-battered, economically vulnerable nation where crimes - corporate, state and civilian - increasingly go unpunished and the few profit off the suffering of the many. Our wars and recessions go on for years after they end. We solve problems by declaring them solved: "mission accomplished", "heck of a job", "economic recovery".
When Manning acted, she did so out of a conviction that her nation was what it proclaimed itself to be instead of the country it had become. She believed that violations must be exposed to be remedied. She believed that violations could be remedied, a belief many Americans, grown cynical and weary, have abandoned. But she no longer had faith in institutions as avenues of accountability. Leaks are a plea to the public to hold to account the institutions that betray them.
In 2011, President Obama gave a statement to the press when questioned by a Manning sympathiser. "We are a nation of laws," he said. "We don't let individuals make decisions about how the law operates. [Manning] broke the law."
Notably, "we are a nation of laws" is the same initial response Obama gave in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. The reminder that we are a nation of laws serves to keep us from asking whether we are a nation of justice.
When institutions collapse, we are left with ideals. Law is an institution; justice is an ideal. But the media present the leaks largely as a question of allegiance - a battle between those who defend government and those who seek to destroy it.
"Tribal feelings determine how you view the significance of Edward Snowden's revelations," writes journalist Marc Ambinder, arguing that we cannot help but "side with the side we identify with: civil libertarians, journalism, or with the intelligence community, with policy-makers."
There is a category left out of that equation: citizens. Manning reacted to war crimes as a citizen seeking reconciliation between law and justice. She wanted the American government to follow its own legal and moral precepts.
This is not an extreme position, nor is it a particularly libertarian one. It asks that those who abuse their power be held accountable. It asks that institutions - like the government and the military - behave as moral entities and take responsibility for the actions of their cruelest, most incompetent members.
But when institutions are eroding from within, far more offensive is the person who brings this fact to light. Manning's 35-year sentence is more than that of other perceived enemies of the state, including John Walker Lindh, who received 20 years after fighting alongside the Taliban.
Manning's sentence is a warning for those who pursue justice in a nation of laws.
No room for justice
Some supporters of Manning and Snowden say that the US is an authoritarian state. It is not. Citizens of the United States enjoy a level of freedom citizens of authoritarian states could not begin to experience. That is why the acts of abuse Manning publicised shocked so many Americans. That is why the abuse of power must always be contested – because unlike in authoritarian states, it can be.
The debates surrounding Snowden and Manning tend to revolve around terminology - heroes or villains, whistle-blowers or traitors. It is more useful to examine what they revealed and why they felt there were no alternate avenues for reform or recrimination.
When America was attacked, it responded by attacking itself. On September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attempted to bring the US down, and failed. Instead, we nearly did the job ourselves, through a decade of botched warfare and economic malfeasance.
In Wikileaks, we see a similar phenomenon. In a 2006 manifesto, Julian Assange wrote that leaking classified information would create paranoia and fear, leading to government panic and loss of state power. Officials are behaving as he anticipated, using extreme tactics - such as the UK's nine-hour detention of David Miranda, the partner of Snowden supporter Glenn Greenwald - to curb perceived abuse.
Defenders of these harsh, self-defeating tactics justify them by saying they are "technically legal" - much like NSA surveillance may be technically legal, and the Manning leaks are technically illegal.
But responding to Manning with a simple "She broke the law" negates the role of justice. What does it mean when those who expose war crimes are treated more harshly than those who perpetrate them - or those who manipulate the law to justify them?
One does not need to like Manning to be appalled by what she revealed. One does not need to approve of her actions to be appalled by their necessity. The question is not whether Manning broke the law. It is whether the law is broken.
Sarah Kendzior is St Louis-based writer who focuses on politics and the media.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.