Julian Assange's great luck: Why the WikiLeaks founder's jailing is good news for him.

Media criticism.
Dec. 7 2010 1:53 PM

Julian Assange's Great Luck

Why his arrest and jailing in the United Kingdom is good news for him.

Julian Assange. Click image to expand.
Julian Assange

A U.K. magistrates' court denied Julian Assange bail and jailed him this morning over charges filed in Sweden that he had violated sex laws in that country last summer. The Swedes want Assange extradited, a matter that the court could take weeks or longer to decide. Although notables appeared in court pledging to post bail for the Australian secrets-leaker, the judge ruled that he didn't trust Assange not to run.

Although a stay in stir and the prospect of Swedish prosecution might not sound appealing or even advantageous, it's actually a lucky break for Assange. I don't expect him to express his gratitude publicly, but I'll bet he's gamed out how to turn the Swedish arrest warrant, the extradition hearing, and beyond to his benefit.

From his jail cell, Assange becomes something he wasn't yesterday: a martyr. As martyrs go, he's not very appealing. He looks like an alien, talks more insane trash than an NBA point guard (he says he's practicing "scientific journalism"), believes that the ends justify the means, and possesses such an ego-swollen head it's a miracle that he can walk without toppling over.

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But throw a nonappealing guy with a cause into jail, and suddenly he becomes a hero. Assange already has a core group of supporters. (I count myself one.) The arrest and jailing will recruit new supporters from their sitting places on the fence; they'll now say, "I don't agree with everything he's done or how he has done it, but these sex charges seem a little trumped up!" Assange's opponents—the honest ones, at least—will rise to say that they'd love to see the pasty-faced bastard dumped into the Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., and become acquainted with the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, FBI traitor Robert Hanssen *, shoe bomber Richard Reid, abortion-clinic bomber Eric Rudolph, and Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. But, they'll add, not on Swedish sex charges.

Assange's jailing changes the "conversation" from how-dare-he to how-dare-they almost as efficiently as if a deranged vigilante had put a bullet in his brain. Our culture loves to protect and defend "victims," which is what the legal proceedings are turning him into. Overnight, he's becoming an albino Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., writing his letter from jail. He's a pint-sized Solzhenitsyn, fighting for freedom from the gulag. For the impressionable, he's Henry David Thoreau, Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Suu Kyi all wrapped up into one.

Even the freezing of his "defense fund" by the Swiss helps Assange. Having been defunded, his martyrdom appeals to a wider group of potential supporters, because they can say—with some justification—that they're not funding the defense of a man who has committed crimes against the state but a conscience-shaper who is being wrongly persecuted for acts that might not qualify as crimes everywhere. (See Slate's detailed "Explainer" on the "sex by surprise" charges brought against Assange.)

Likewise, Amazon's booting of WikiLeaks files from its Web servers further burnishes Assange's free-speech credentials. A smart piece in Boing Boing points out that Amazon's claim that the files violate the company's terms of service, which state "you represent and warrant that you own or otherwise control all of the rights to the content ... that use of the content you supply does not violate this policy and will not cause injury to any person or entity." Boing Boing rightly notes that Amazon sells books—both physical and electronic—whose contents contain state secrets that the authors and publishers don't own or control.

The decisions by Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal to shutter WikiLeaks accounts for reasons similar to those of Amazon will also backfire in Assange's favor. People who didn't much care about WikiLeaks last week might became outraged and politicized by the financial overlords' capricious behavior. Don't they appreciate that they're making anarchists out of baristas and housewives?

The more WikiLeaks leaks while Assange is in jail, the more he'll become like Spartacus, making him an inspirational figure, not just a controversial one. The mirroring of the WikiLeaks information to hundreds of servers around the globe is one manifestation of the Spartacus effect.

As the Guardian reports, the extradition of Assange isn't a sure thing. Accorded due process, Assange can make the extradition proceedings an international version of the Chicago Seven trial that puts the accusers on trial—although if Assange is looking for sympathizers, the less Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin the better.

If the Swedes fail to extradite, the United States will be tempted to make a similar request. Salon surmises that Assange may have already been indicted under seal in the United States, but I can't imagine that the Justice Department would want to put the Espionage Act of 1917 to constitutional challenge by prosecuting a foreigner for disseminating classified information that somebody else stored. As somebody tweeted last week, if Assange is a criminal for publishing the cables on WikiLeaks, what is New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. for publishing them in his newspaper? (Writing in Slate, former Supreme Court clerk Nick Bravin sketches a path by which the Justice Department could successfully prosecute Assange.)

There's one last upside to Assange's incarceration. For the better part of a year, he's been on the run, living off of cash and flopping at the homes of friends and supporters. At least until his Dec. 14 court hearing, he won't have to worry about where he's going to sleep tomorrow.

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Correction, Dec. 7, 2010: This article originally misspelled the last name of Robert Hanssen. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.