Snowden’s Retreat

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.

Henry David Thoreau Courtesy of Wikipedia

Henry David Thoreau
Courtesy of Wikipedia

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.

Panic Attack

I hope you have seen the 25 minute interview with Ed Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on the NSA. The interview was conducted in Hong Kong where Snowden now resides until he has determined what the future will bring. He comes across as a bright, articulate, well-informed, and conscientious young man who knows whereof he speaks and also knows exactly what he did. I will not  spoil the interview for you because it is well worth your time, no matter how busy you are. I will simply attach the link here and hope you will check it out.

Toward the end of his interview Mr. Snowden expresses his main concern: that after the dust settles, things will go back to the way they were — except that the intelligence gathering community will become even more efficient and they will continue to gather information about all of us and we have no idea whatever how that information will be used by a government that increasingly borders on paranoia. Actually, I paraphrase and added the bit about paranoia myself. But if you listen to the interview you will see what Mr. Snowden actually does say. He certainly hopes that American citizens will become riled up enough about the situation that they will put pressure on their representatives so that present policies in Washington can be changed and this surveillance nonsense can be thwarted. And he is realistic enough to worry that this will not happen.

So am I. I am put in mind of some comments made by Andrew J. Bacevich, a West Point graduate who fought in Viet Nam in 1970 and 1971, served as a career Army officer, rising to the rank of Colonel. Bacevich recently testified to a Senate committee that Americans have “fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force. To a degree without precedent in U.S. history.” As Bacevich went on to say, “The mystical war on Communism finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism. It prevents us from seeing things as they are.”

Bacevich, like Snowden, also knows whereof he speaks. And given this present aura of “mysticism” in Washington, one can conclude that the Congress in the grips of the military and the intelligence community to a degree that even a full-fledged effort by the American people will not penetrate that fog and result in alterations of national policy. This is the case because it is not only the American citizens who have “fallen prey to militarism,” it is our leaders as well. And with this fog thickening every day, it will become even more difficult to penetrate and messages to Congressional leaders from their constituents will simply not get through. The truly unsettling thing about this situation is that it is largely built on a fiction. Ours is one of the safest countries on earth.

We are separated from much of the world by two oceans and bordered by allies, as we are reminded by Jill Lepore in a recent New Yorker article (1/28/13). The country is, “by dint of geography among the best-protected countries on earth. Nevertheless, six decades after V-J Day nearly three thousand American troops are stationed overseas, including fifty-five thousand in Germany, thirty-five thousand in Japan, and ten thousand in Italy.” Further, our intelligence community, despite its excesses, is considerably better informed about the goings on of suspected terrorists than it was before the attacks on the Twin Towers.  And yet, despite these protections the nation shakes in fear of what we seem convinced is an inevitable terrorist attack that will bring this nation to its knees and wreak havoc among our citizens. We have become increasingly apathetic and are losing our collective sense of perspective. Despite the fact that the odds of any single American being killed by terrorists is approximately the same as that same American winning the lottery, we seem perfectly content to hand over our freedoms and even our consciences to the government in the name of “national security.”

Thus, it would seem, Mr. Snowden’s fears are well founded.  After the dust settles — and it will settle sooner rather than later — things will almost certainly go back to the way they were. The mystique of militarism has us all in its grips, and we seem perfectly content to leave it that way.