Daniel Ellsberg, the man who gave the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971, was the most famous government leaker before Edward Snowden. Today, Ellsberg says that Snowden was right to flee America. No shit!
Edward Snowden's deliberate and planned leaks of top secret documents and information about NSA spying programs can best be understood as an act of whistleblowing. Snowden was morally alarmed at what he saw happening, and decided to reveal the information in the name of what he believed to be the public good. He decided to reveal his own identity on the principle that what he did was not wrong. All of these things are consistent with civil disobedience.
The key difference between Edward Snowden and the more famous adherents of of civil disobedience: he got the fuck out of Dodge. He did not stick around, and turn himself in, and stoically face the punishment that the U.S. government so desperately wants to dole out to him. For this, he has been denigrated as a coward and a fraud.
Ridiculous. This is the most vivid example of chicken hawking since the armies of fat, pink, armchair-bound pundits were cheering on the Iraq war from the safety of their air-conditioned Beltway offices. Edward Snowden's primary goal was to put important information in the public realm. He did that. His secondary goal was to show his face in order to make the point that he should not have to hide in the shadows, because he did not do anything morally wrong. He did that. Please note that he did not have a third goal of "being locked in a dungeon for the remainder of his natural life."
Under what moral principle is Edward Snowden obligated to accept a life-destroying punishment that he believes to be unjust? What would he accomplish by agreeing to be locked in a bright and empty room and never heard from again? Daniel Ellsberg— a man who knows better than anyone how Snowden probably feels right now— notes that the America of today is far different than the America of 1971. For leakers, it is a harsher, more dangerous, and more vindictive place. Writes Ellsberg, "There is zero chance that [Snowden] would be allowed out on bail if he returned now and close to no chance that, had he not left the country, he would have been granted bail. Instead, he would be in a prison cell like Bradley Manning, incommunicado. He would almost certainly be confined in total isolation, even longer than the more than eight months Manning suffered during his three years of imprisonment before his trial began recently."
Henry David Thoreau, one of the original proponents of civil disobedience, spent one measly night in jail. It's easy to face up to the powers that be when you only have 24 hours to lose. Other great icons of civil disobedience, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., were murdered. That's a bit much to ask of anyone. (The fact that they faced their fates with equanimity is one reason they are considered almost superhuman.) Snowden himself likely faces decades in prison. Would you go to prison for decades willingly, if you believed you didn't deserve to? I wouldn't.
People who consider Snowden a traitorous criminal wish he did not flee because they want to see him punished. People who think that Snowden did something righteous yet still believe he shouldn't have fled only think that because they think that the specter of Snowden rotting in prison would somehow drive home the point of America's injustice. I fail to see why Edward Snowden owes his life to either group. He certainly is not obligated to acquiesce to those who disagree with him. Nor is he obligated to donate more of his personal freedom than he already has to satisfy moralists who would use him as a plaything for their own pet cause. He has given up almost everything. That is more than enough.
[Photo: Mike Herbst/ Flickr]