The Universal Notebook: Patriot? Traitor? Hero? Anti-hero?
So is Edward Snowden a patriotic hero or a treasonous villain for revealing that the U.S. government operates a massive secret surveillance program that monitors every phone call and Internet search we make?
Personally, I’m not sure he’s either, but I’m pretty certain that my ambivalence about Snowden is fairly typical of mainstream American opinion. We Americans want to believe that our government acts in our best interests, so it’s difficult for us to believe that it systematically lies to and spies on us.
In my youth, Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers revealed to us that our government and military had known for years that the Vietnam War was unwinnable and had been inflating enemy body counts in hopes of persuading us that we were winning. Ellsberg should be regarded as a national hero for placing the truth and the common good ahead of official authoritarian propaganda, helping to end a senseless war and saving countless lives, but I’m guessing Mr. & Mrs. America would not support a holiday proclaimed in Ellsberg’s name.
Since the 1960s, anti-government dissent has swung from the far left to the far right such that draft card-burning antiwar protesters have been replaced by flag-waving hawks when it comes to criticizing the government as authoritarian and tyrannical. I found it instructive that the same John Kerry who was the face of Vietnam Veterans Against the War is now Secretary of State and, as such, condemned Edward Snowden for placing American lives in jeopardy, one of the same criticisms leveled at antiwar protesters in the 1970s.
The counterculture is now in power, so it’s hard for an aging leftie like me to know where he stands when support for Snowden spans the ideological spectrum of the political class from Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky on the left to Glenn Beck and Michael Savage on the right. Still even that master of demagoguery, Rush Limbaugh, is flummoxed by Snowden, first praising and then condemning him.
My guess is that most Americans don’t really believe the government is reading their email or listening in on their phone conversations, just monitoring a vast array of communications data looking for patterns that might reveal threats to national security. But then Americans have also demonstrated a disturbing willingness to sacrifice privacy and liberty to safety and security.
Former President Jimmy Carter, probably the most moral man to occupy that office in my lifetime, pretty much summed up my own thinking on the matter when he said that Snowden “obviously violated the laws of America, but I think the invasion of human rights and American privacy has gone too far.”
Carter, a U.S. Navy veteran and former commander in chief who surely was as aware as anyone of America’s secret intelligence gathering, was sufficiently disturbed by the massive scale of the National Security Administration surveillance to conclude that “America does not have a functioning democracy at this point in time.”
The revelations of spying contained in Edward Snowden’s security leaks and Pvt. Bradley Manning’s publication of damning evidence of U.S. crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan have undermined the already shaky administration of Barack Obama. Indeed, Snowden has said that he was prepared to disclose the NSA secret surveillance program in 2008, but decided to give President Obama time to bring transparency to government. That never happened.
Though I believe Edward Snowden did the right thing by revealing the government spy program, it would be a lot easier to defend him if he had stayed to face the music rather than fleeing to Russia, a country with government transparency and human rights problems of its own. But then you can’t ask a man to be more courageous than he is.
I have seen several online comments about the coincidence of Edward Snowden’s name with that of a character in Joseph Heller’s anti-war classic Catch-22. Heller’s Snowden is a young airman who dies in a plane over France, his internal organs spilling out when Yossarian, the novel’s all-too-human antihero, removes Snowden’s flak jacket to check his wounds.
“The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret,” Heller writes and Yossarian thinks.
Its integrity gone, a government, too, is garbage. That’s no secret. Let’s just hope that America can restore some confidence in democracy and that Edward Snowden doesn’t die for spilling his guts.