by Barry Edelson
Become a Patron


Before We Bury Mr. Snowden


It would appear that Americans are undecidedly of two minds about Edward Snowden, the self-professed leaker of details concerning the National Security Agency's habit of rudely sweeping up our phone and email records without so much as a "by your leave". In between the extreme views expressed by politicians and others — that Snowden is either a traitor or a hero — there is the usual gray middle that can see it both ways.

We have good reason to fear the government's indiscriminate gathering of data on individuals, and should not trust even a "good" administration like President Obama's to resist the temptation of using it for nefarious purposes. It's not as if it hasn't happened before (see Hoover, J. Edgar and/or Nixon, Richard). Somewhere along the way you can be certain that someone on some Congressional committee or in some governmental agency will find some national security or law enforcement rationale for diving into this sea of data and harpooning some unsuspecting victim, doing irreparable harm to that person's livelihood, health and reputation. It will cause an uproar considerably more raucous than the one surrounding the current whereabouts and runabouts of young Mr. Snowden, if the public actually finds out about it.

On the other hand (where espionage is concerned, there is always another hand), we cannot ignore the state's compelling interest in preventing violence against its citizens. We may take issue with the previous inhabitant of the Oval Office, who frequently insisted that he had sworn an oath to protect the people of the United States when he had in fact done no such thing, as his oath was actually to the Constitution and all it stands for. However, there are self-evident truths of public service which effectively trump any of the philosophical niceties of the founding documents, primary among them being that when people are killed in large numbers, the public cares about little else but stopping the carnage and preventing its continuation (domestic gun violence excepted, of course). Naturally, this begs the question of whether every single aspect of the government's hyperactive reaction to 9/11 is really necessary to prevent terrorism, and whether such a gargantuan response is warranted to confront the non-existential threat from our dangerous but non-conquering enemies.

We are perfectly justified in cherishing our civil liberties, and would be better served by the ruling stratum if its denizens not only loved their liberties as we do, but realized that the rest of us cannot rely on the protections of security clearance and/or name recognition to keep our precious identities from being lost in the data vortex. But we are being intellectually dishonest if we do not admit that the security question is in fact a question, not a certainty. The argument about where the balance lies must be entertained for the sake of both civil liberties and safety. Wasn't "freedom from fear" one of the FDR's four freedoms? Security without liberty isn't much to live for, but liberty without security isn't worth much, either. This argument therefore falls into the realm of the ethical, rather than the moral; that is, it is not about right versus wrong, but right versus right.

Those who profess publicly to be able to distinguish the moral from the immoral with clarity should be viewed with the suspicion that the self-righteous typically visit upon themselves through their displays of certitude. The great immoralist, George Bernard Shaw, had this to say about the subject in Major Barbara, in this exchange between the industrious, unrepentant arms manufacturer Undershaft and his idle son:

UNDERSHAFT. Well, come! is there anything you know or care for?

STEPHEN. [rising and looking at him steadily] I know the difference between right and wrong.

UNDERSHAFT. [hugely tickled] You don't say so! What! no capacity for business, no knowledge of law, no sympathy with art, no pretension to philosophy; only a simple knowledge of the secret that has puzzled all the philosophers, baffled all the lawyers, muddled all the men of business, and ruined most of the artists: the secret of right and wrong. Why, man, you're a genius, master of masters, a god! At twenty-four, too!

In today's society, the young man in question would be too young to rent a car because, as science has since demonstrated, the human prefrontal cortex, whence moral judgments emerge, is not deemed fully developed until the age of 25 (as if there were not already abundant evidence in the world around us, as Shaw clearly knew decades before the scientific method was ever applied to the matter). Our friend Snowden, in his late 20s, may be presumed to be a moral toddler. Of all the lessons we learned so bitterly from the 1960s, the one that ought never to be forgotten is that the facile slogan "Never trust anyone over 30" is exactly backward. Age hardly confers wisdom on all who live to maturity, but it is nonetheless a prerequisite for mature judgment. Put your trust in morally outraged youth, and you get the society you deserve.

This is not to suggest that someone of Snowden's age is incapable of discerning the truth, forming reasonable opinions and taking meaningful action on weighty concerns. Martin Luther King was roughly the same age when he began his ascendance to the leadership of the Civil Rights movement. But Snowden's missionary zeal — his certainty that he is defending a moral right versus the government's authoritarian wrong — coupled with his running to the other side of the planet, are precisely what makes his actions so troubling. The public would no doubt have much more regard for him if he had stayed in the United States and faced the charges against him. It is a fundamental principle of Dr. King's philosophy of nonviolence that one has a right and even a duty to confront unjust laws, but at the same time one is obliged to acknowledge that one is in fact breaking the law and must face the consequences. Only the morally naive believe that righteousness is its own reward. For Snowden to assert from remote Hong Kong that he is "an American", while appealing for refuge in countries not exactly known for their commitment to civil liberties, reeks of moral cowardice (and is of course deeply ironic). Moreover, it shows that he is perhaps too callow to fully reason out his position and its consequences. Exposing the government's secret operations — even those that purport to have a noble purpose like protecting the nation — can perhaps be justified. But it is hard to accept that this was the best or noblest way to go about it.

Only the morally naive
believe that righteousness
is its own reward.

One other aspect of this affair from which Americans understandably recoil is the implicit conflation of the United States with the world's worst dictatorships (call it the Chomsky syndrome). Merely escaping to China makes Snowden look as if he were in the camp of the conspiracy mongers who believe that there is little to choose from among national governments. It is impossible to take to heart anything that someone says when he stands against the backdrop of knee-jerk, anti-American vitriol. While some of our government's actions are indeed worryingly similar to those of our totalitarian nemeses, and there is a persistent risk that confronting an enemy over a prolonged period provokes us into adopting more and more of their methods (see McCarthy, Joseph), we are still far from being the Orwellian superstate that our detractors believe we have already become. True, the United States has locked up too many people for too long without due process, and tortured an unknown number of them, thereby disgracing its own Constitution in the process. But why is it ever necessary to make false comparisons with countries that don't even have a bill of rights to defend, places in which a Snowden who revealed state secrets would be obliterated without a trace and without the slightest twinge of moral conscience? There would have been no Martin Luther King permitted in the Soviet Union, no Gandhi tolerated in Maoist China. False moral equivalencies between powerful countries are not required to take America to task for its excesses and mistakes.

The internet and the news media, which have made it possible for Snowden to broadcast his discontent to the world, are ipso facto a refutation of his implicit insinuation that it isn't possible to debate and oppose governmental intrusiveness in the open. Everyone on earth knows that it is nearly impossible to silence voices of dissent in this digital world, but apparently Snowden hasn't been paying attention. If either he or his new-found brother in righteousness, Julian Assange, had the courage to stand up in court and face the music, they might be in a position to assume the moral leadership of a necessary movement against the fearsome security industrial complex. Instead, by choosing the path of indiscriminate leakage of information — the potential danger of which they are in no position to determine — they have invited exile and isolation upon themselves. Worse still, by throwing in his lot with credentialed revilers of America, and seeking asylum in countries famous mostly for choosing principled misery over cooperation with the great Satan, Snowden surrenders his claim to patriotism and dooms himself to remain part of a self-worshipping band of data renegades. And what, pray tell, will that do to stop or even slow down the growth and power of the dreaded leviathan?


June 26, 2013


Become a Patron

Go to top of page

Return to home pageSend an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.