Just at the point when the WikiLeaks saga was collapsing into final absurdity — with Julian Assange’s apparent outburst about a Jewish conspiracy, his attempt to trademark his name (to be fair, this is to protect him from false endorsement claims, etc), and the announcement that Steven Spielberg has bought the rights to  The Guardian book and the tell-all by former WikiLeaker Daniel Domscheit-Berg — something comes along to tip it into tragedy again, and that is the charging of US soldier Bradley Manning with 22  additional crimes, including that of aiding the enemy, which attracts the death penalty.

The other charges include wrongfully obtaining classified material, fraud, and illegal transmission of defence information. The capital charge relates specifically to the presence of names of informers in many of the leaked documents, and the argument that such release may have led directly to deaths in Afghanistan.

None of the charges mention WikiLeaks, and WikiLeaks claims that it has no way of knowing who its sources are — or were , when it had the capacity for people to submit material — but it is usually supposed that Manning is the source for the “Afghan” and “Iraq” war logs, and the entire “Cablegate” archive. Manning, a low-level military information operative in Iraq and then back in the US, copied the archives over eight months from the US US SIPRNet network, and passed them on to WikiLeaks — or so he claimed to Adrian Lamo, a well-known hacker, who shopped him to the authorities. Lamo already had criminal convictions on hacking charges, and was terrified of massive retaliation by the authorities.

That retaliation has now fallen on Manning, who has been held virtually incommunicado, save for lawyer contact, for the past 10 months. Despite being innocent until proven guilty, even under military law, his extended remand has been a bloody-minded application of every regulation associated with US “supermax” prisons — he is in permanent solitary confinement (even his one hour/day exercise), under permanent surveillance, must make a verbal response to a query every 10 minutes, and if he attempts to take exercise in his cell — push-ups, for example — he is physically prevented from doing so. Visitors — including former Salon journalist Glenn Greenwald and Congressman Dennis Kucinich — have been prevented from visiting him.

The clear intent of such a process is to break Manning down to a pitiful state of desperation, and persuade him to incriminate Julian Assange as an active conspirator (although even then, it would be difficult to charge a non-US citizen with espionage charges). In his online chats with Lamo, Manning talks of some contact with Assange but it would be up to the prosecution to prove that this was something more than idle chat.

Whether it achieves that or not, it may well overshoot the mark and drive Manning completely and irrevocably insane. Such forms of confinement are unquestionably torture, but they are torture of a very specific kind — a sort of paradoxical torture. If the aim of torture per se is to make the prisoner’s body rebel against their soul — have animal pain and terror fill the consciousness until any principle, belief, or commitment is undermined — then the “supermax” regime is the opposite — it dissolves subjectivity by removing all that is most basically human, from diversion to human connection.

This is the point made most famously by Foucault: that the notion that neat antiseptic prison regimes are more humane than physical punishment is the founding conceit of modernity. In many ways they can be worse. Solitary confinement and the microcontrol of a prisoner’s behaviour are designed as a form of total annihilation, because they exert enormous energies in ensuring that the prisoner goes on existing, while depriving him of anything resembling life. That division of existence from purposeful life is effectively a standardised and routinised way of producing despair.

Not surprisingly, it is a particularly American form of human annihilation. The “supermax” prisons, and such total regimes, are the descendants of the first modern prison schemes, the penitentiaries established by the Quakers in Pennsylvania in the 1830s. Where other prisons housed prisoners collectively in squalor as part of their punishment, the Quakers believed that this merely bred criminality. The object was to make a prisoner repent (as the name suggests) by developing a relationship with God — and the only way to do that was to deprive a prisoner of a relationship with anyone else.

Thus, prisoners in the penitentiary were ideally utterly isolated from anyone else — they even had separate corridors so they couldn’t see each other. Eventually through their screaming isolation they would seek and find God. The gentle and peaceful Quakers thought that this invention was a force for good; many of those who observed it, such as Charles Dickens, thought it was a horrifying nightmare. But someone who never saw a problem with it was Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America was based on the trip he took to the US to report on this marvellous new prison system, for the French government.

Much of Democracy in America was devoted to trying work out what the problems of the new American society might be. He never realised that the answer was the very thing he was sent to study — the penitentiary was the other side of American depthlessness, an indifference to the full humanity of others hidden from oneself by following correct procedure and affirming goodness of heart.

The penitentiary is bad enough when it’s part of a God-centred culture; when part of one — even the US — where God is a shaky notion, then it’s a literal Hell. Its deeply anti-human nature does achieve what the Quakers sought, since many prisoners become believers out of the sheer need for someone to talk to, but it’s a counterfeit conversion, won through psychological warfare.

With 2 million Americans in prison, many of them in semi-penitentiary style incarceration, the prison system mirrors key aspects of American life — in particular the substantial atomisation and isolation of everyday life.

It even reflects much of the case at hand. Manning, a gay man, joined the military out of lack of direction, and found himself in a situation where he had to live the shadow-life of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. It was a relationship in Boston that brought him into contact with hackers such as Lamo — and the end of that relationship that plunged him into the loneliness and despair that prompted him to blab to Lamo. Lamo himself writes as a floating child of the aether — an isolated, disconnected depressive and chemically enhanced. There’s no doubting the genuineness of Manning’s outrage at much of the material he saw, but nor is there any doubt that the chaotic and unstable way in which this has all come about is a much a measure of the age, as is the content of the cables themselves. Their lives, and the punitive regimes Manning is under are of a piece with the war he was exposing, where a high-tech obsessed with notions of its own virtue could — as illustrated by the “collateral murder” video — distance itself from any consequences of individual action, any basic shared humanity.

What options there are for Manning now is anyone’s guess, but he’s in a tight corner. The WikiLeaks process has been part of an argument that governments should be more open, that power relations should be reconstructed in a new era. That’s not the same as saying that individual operatives should have the legal right to distribute as they wish. At some point, the prosecution of such an act becomes an act of decorum essential to the state’s existence, and to suggest that a massive classified document leak could be ignored is simply unreal. For Assange and WikiLeaks, a defence is clear and absolute. Manning erred in being human; his only hope may now lie in finding a quality of mercy. Judging by his treatment to date, that is a long way off.