Edward Snowden must not be made a hero! That probably comes as a surprise to anyone who read my previous two pieces on PRISM,
but it’s a genuine concern. The question of Snowden as hero or traitor threatens to derail the much more important conversation that we need to have in the United States.
Bipartisan attacks on Snowden are already being levelled. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Bill Nelson, both Democrats, and the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner have all called Snowden a traitor. Others are praising him as a hero. And, as the go-to newspaper for lobbyists, POLITICO has already pointed out, the debate itself is precisely what President Obama wants. While we debate the pros and cons of Ed Snowden, we’re not discussing PRISM.
Snowden, of course, did a courageous thing. He threw away a very highly paid job because he couldn’t stomach what he was doing. He could have simply quit, but he thought it was important that people know about this program. If we have some real reform that stops the US government from spying on innocent citizens, here and around the world, or at least stops them from doing it on such a huge scale, we can stop and give him the honor he deserves.
But right now, Ed Snowden is a distraction. Yes, we should call for his protection, but entering the “traitor vs. hero” debate is defeating the purpose of what he did.
That’s not to say that there isn’t another conversation that needs to happen about Snowden. Whistleblowers have always been a point
of controversy, and for all his liberal talk about transparency, Barack Obama has been more hostile to them than many of his predecessors.
It’s also true that going forward we need to clarify how we assess people like Snowden, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Mark Felt and other notable whistleblowers. Felt, who was the informant known as Deep Throat that gave Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward the information they needed to expose Richard Nixon’s criminal behavior is now generally regarded as a hero. Manning and Assange face imprisonment for the rest of their lives. That says a lot about the extent to which Americans have become much more cowardly and willing to allow our government to strip away our freedoms in order to “protect us from terrorists.”
In its infancy, the Israel Defense Forces had a rule called “Degel Shakhor” or black flag. It meant that soldiers should not carry out orders that were clearly immoral. The intent was that “I was just following orders” was not supposed to be a legitimate excuse for major human rights violations. It was seldom used, in that army or any other, of course. But the idea is a very good one, and should be the lesson we draw from not accepting the “following orders” excuse from the Nazis. Those who believe that Snowden or Manning, by assuming their roles as NSA analyst and solider, respectively, should not have revealed the horrifying things they did should take a lesson.
But that’s a different conversation, one to be had when there isn’t an issue this weighty pending. Right now, we still see no one in the streets calling for our government to let private lives be private. That is supposed to be a basic principle in the US, one which transcends political differences. But such principles fail when we live in fear.
We cannot allow the media or the Congress divert this conversation into whether or not Snowden had a right to do what he did. The conversation needs to center on the crimes our government has committed. And crimes they are, whether or not our cooperative Congress permitted laws to be passed to justify the unjustifiable.
That’s why, for now, we cannot concern ourselves with crowning Edward Snowden a hero. Let’s instead make his actions worthwhile.