Despite the fact that I defended Edward Snowden for his risky revelations about NSA, the apparent fact that he joined the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in order to have access to privileged information so he could then reveal that information to the American people is disturbing. It raises questions about his motives, suggesting that he contrived to perform an act which seems on its face to have been one of courage and evidence of deep convictions. Further, it is equally disturbing to read that he is now “hiding out” in the former Soviet Union where he appears to be safe from extradition.
In classic cases of civil disobedience, which this seems to be on the surface, the person involved willingly faces punishment for his disobedience to a particular law. It is a specific law, or in Snowden’s case, a specific series of violations of the First Amendment, that is found objectionable — not law (or the system of laws) itself. The classic cases are those of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau, both of whom were willing to face the consequences of their acts of disobedience — King’s to the laws supporting segregation and Thoreau protesting fugitive slave laws. In any event, the phrase “civil disobedience” implies clearly that the disobedient person recognized the legitimacy of law as such but has serious moral qualms about specific laws that seem to be a violation of “higher” laws of morality. Hence the term civil disobedience. As Thoreau said in his essay on civil disobedience, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” The appeal is almost always to a higher, moral law with the recognition that civil law as such is essential to the preservation of society. As King wrote in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”:
One may want to ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”
Simple disobedience to laws with no intent to suffer consequences is anarchy or, possibly in the case of Snowden, treason. Unless there are mitigating circumstances about which we have yet to be informed, it would appear that Snowden is on rather weak moral grounds. This is not to say that I condone what NSA is doing. Quite the contrary. I regard it as a clear violation of the First Amendment. However, if we contrast Snowden’s actions with those of Pfc. Bradley Manning who “blew the whistle” on the U.S. Army and faces a military tribunal and a possible twenty-year prison sentence we can see the difference in sharp relief. Manning felt strongly that what was going on in Iraq was a violation of what we might call the laws of morality and he chose not only to reveal what he regarded as evil, but he also chose to face the consequences. His act was truly courageous; based on the information we are able to get from the public media, Snowden now appears to have had questionable motives in the first place and his unwillingness to accept the consequences of his act suggests that he is deserving of censure. We might want to exercise caution in determining who deserves to be placed on a pedestal.