Edward Snowden and Our Rights
I have been doing a great deal of thinking in the past week about Edward Snowden. In case you have been completely out of touch, Snowden is the former NSA contractor who provided two newspapers with documents showing that the NSA has a program to collect huge amounts of data regarding US citizens. While the NSA program was apparently legally presented to Congress and approved, it had been kept secret from the public. Snowden’s actions were illegal, and he fled the US to avoid prosecution – first to Hong Kong and then to Russia. As of this writing, he is in the transit lounge of the Moscow airport waiting for the next leg of his journey.
So, the questions of the day are: Should Edward Snowden be brought back to the US to stand trial? Is he a hero or is he a villian?
Snowden’s actions have rightfully triggered significant discussions about rights of privacy for citizens, the responsibility of government to protect and defend its citizens, and whether Snowden was right or wrong in releasing the documents that brought to light the NSA program; I have heard Snowden described as a traitor and as a hero. Interestingly, this is not an issue that has split along the typical Republican / Democrat or conservative / liberal lines that currently define politics in the US.
I find this entire discussion to be wonderfully healthy. As a democracy, we collectively need to periodically examine the balance our society takes between individual rights / responsibilities and government powers / responsibilities. This is one of those times. I believe that the more thoughtful discussion we have of this balance, the stronger we are as a nation.
But where we eventually strike the balance between individual rights and government power is a very different question than whether Edward Snowden, whose actions triggered the entire discussion, is good or bad – a hero or a traitor.
We all view each new experience through the lens of our past. I grew up in the deep south – in and just outside of Birmingham, Alabama – during the 1960s. By far, the civil rights movement overrode everything else as I was coming of age and thinking about the world. It continues to do so.
I developed a deep and abiding respect for Dr. Martin Luther King the non-violent civil disobedience that he preached. Dr. King recognized that meeting the violence of racism with violence (no matter how deserved) would not lead to his goal: a recognition by fair-minded people that the system in place in the american south was evil and needed to be replaced. Dr. King penned his classic “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail” describing and defending that strategy while he was being jailed for his non-violent disobedience.
There are some striking parallels between the civil rights in Birmingham and the current situation. A circuit court judge issued an injunction against any demonstrations and Dr. King announced that he and his group chose not to obey what they viewed as an unjust law. Similarly, the NSA program is apparently lawful and disclosure of the program violated federal law. Snowden, however, chose not to obey what he viewed an unjust law against disclosure of a program about which he believed the pubic needed to be informed. In both cases, clear laws were violated for what the individuals believed to be more important issues.
But there the parallel breaks down. Dr. King and the civil rights advocates publicly demonstrated and accepted – even welcomed – arrest. Their treatment in the Birmingham city jail was deliberately and unusually harsh. I will be forever ashamed of my hometown’s treatment of Dr. King during its darkest time. His perseverance in the face of inhuman treatment showed clearly who was on the side of right and who was on the side of wrong in the civil rights struggle. The struggle for equality under the law for all people continues to this day, but Dr. King placed it inexorably on the path towards equal treatment with his actions in Birmingham in 1963.
Like Dr. King, Edward Snowden chose to defy a law. But rather than accepting the consequences of defying that law and using the consequences to highlight that the law was unjust, Snowden attempted to place himself beyond the reach of the law. He chose to flee the jurisdiction. He took the coward’s way out. By doing so, Snowden showed that he either lacked belief that his decision to release classified information was right and necessary, or that he lacked confidence in the public to come to appreciate his position and actions. Snowden’s actions in fleeing US jurisdiction undercuts his decision to release the information – why should anyone else believe it was the right thing to do if he himself didn’t have confidence in his actions?
It is a crying shame that Snowden has decided to be a coward. I suspect that if he were to stand up and argue forcefully that the public in a democracy deserves – even needs – to have full information about actions that its government is taking, I would agree and applaud. But I cannot agree with or applaud someone whose actions belie his words – and that is an accurate description of Edward Snowden today.