Very Smart Response to “Snowden, His Freedom Paradises and Our Means Vs. Ends Decisions”

By Vince Gay
I share your concerns about the balance between individual conscience and community safety, and have a take that’s similar to yoursin some ways, different in others.
I truly value the safety of my family and myself. If offered a clear choice between doing nothing and sharing a piece of information that would save a school full of children or a sidewalk full of marathon watchers, I would, of course, share the information.
But that isn’t the choice offered to me, or my wife or my son. Those are never the kinds of choices truly offered. I would like nothing better than for my son to live in a world where nothing bad happens, a world of “absolute safety”, whatever that is.
The choice that is offered to us, though, is one between a frequently broken illusion of “absolute safety” and the very real danger of constantly having to look over one’s shoulder, to always wonder how everything he does looks and sounds to the most authoritarian eyes and ears that may be observing him.  It is to hold back on the public expression of anything that might be interpreted as “radicalism”–non-violent (or strictly defensively violent) radicalism being legal, and even necessary in a free society—and to have to hold back even more, every time something bad happens, and the illusion of absolute safety is broken, and the authoritarian grip tightens.
The value of privacy may be difficult to grasp from the standpoint of a society in which lack of privacy has long been considered a given. Privacy’s value is that it is the first layer of the thin membrane between living in a police state and living in a society that at least puts forth a pretense of trying to be free and open. It is the expectation of the minimization, if not the removal, of the constant threat of being heard, of being misinterpreted, of sounding more frightening than you are, of constantly having to explain yourself—or of simply being punished for dissent.
The abolition of slavery, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, environmental movements and the gay rights movement were all born in thousands of private and very subversive conversations.  Even the parts of these movements that were perfectly legal in their day involved the kind of subversion of the status quo that many in authority would happily and violently stamp out, “just in case” the entertainment of such ideas might lead to violence by someone not properly authorized, or “just in case” they interfered with the agendas of the powerful. To the ears of the authoritarian who listens in, tomorrow’s liberation movement and the hope of progress look and sound an awful lot like today’s terrorism. They must be squelched.
The spirit of the oaths Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden took was that of protecting information whose secrecy is necessary to national security, not to protect their government from accountability. Both Manning and Snowden have been true to the oaths they took, and then some. They have helped to protect the American people from enemies foreign and domestic—including their own government.
They didn’t reveal anything about government snooping that wasn’t already widely suspected (and taken into account by those with nefarious aims).  They did force at least some accountability by robbing the government of the opportunity to hide behind a paper-thin shield of plausible deniability.
If this kind of mining of data is necessary to national security, then let the government make a case for it, in the open—not sneak so-called “laws” and police practices into existence. Let the government explain how the public is endangered by a need to obtain warrants (in a court that actually scrutinizes requests to search and seize), and to demonstrate probable cause or reasonable suspicion before scooping up information that is reasonable to assume is private. 
As it is, there is precious little to indicate that so much as one life has been saved by these practices, or by torture, which tends to produce highly suspect non-information. More lives were lost in the video of the taxpayer-supported slaughter of civilians that Manning made public.
Even if the government could show that this kind of surveillance (which always shows potential guilt before it shows actual innocence) could prevent a Newtown or a Boston bombing (which it didn’t, after years of data analysis), it would be telling us what we already know: if you ransack the homes, cars, businesses or communications of everyone in the world, you will, without a doubt, come across some people with plans to do bad things. But the ransacking itself will do more damage to peace of mind, to political processes, and to safety than any bad that might be discovered—and this is assuming that the bad in question could not be discovered in some far less damaging way that wouldn’t destroy this village in order to save it.
And who knows what has been lost as Americans everywhere learn to carefully self-edit anything they might think to speak, write, do?
The exercise of individual conscience is not a threat to free, open and—yes—orderly societies. It is central to them. Thoreau advocated civil disobedience in the name of the greater good, not just in the name of whatever cause someone happened to latch onto. Certainly, anyone who poses an actual threat by leaking information that actually endangers people should be subject to serious penalties (Note that there is no sign that this has happened, as a result of the actions of Snowden, Manning, Assange, Greenwald…). None of this means that government should be free to keep secret any inconvenient truth it might want to, or to punish those who bring non-security-sensitive secrets into the open.
Thoreau also advocated respect for rule of law: Hold back on paying your taxes, but be willing to go to jail. Block traffic as part of a protest, but accept the ticket.  This makes sense with laws and penalties that may or may not be disagreeable, but are implemented in a fair manner for their intended purposes. There is a reason taxes, if issued, have to be paid by everyone according to the same rules. There is a reason it’s not legal to block traffic. One should have to weigh benefits and risks before breaking these rules: Is something going on that’s more important than the smooth flow of traffic? If so, take to the street and call needed attention to the cause, but respect the rule of a reasonable law, and be prepared to pay a reasonable price.
And traffic laws are made to smooth traffic flow, not to chill free speech.  To far too great an extent, the unfair laws and unfair penalties in the Manning and Snowden cases are being used, not to protect, but to chill–and to undermine their stated purposes, not serve them.
Bradley Manning didn’t endure months of imprisonment and cruel treatment before his trial because this was needed to protect the public. He was subjected to this treatment so that the government could make an example of him, even before obtaining a conviction. Along with the greater price paid by Manning, you and I are paying a fear dividend every time we feel the impulse to hesitate a moment before speaking up.
Edward Snowden saw what happened to those who had gone before him, those who had blown the whistle, by both legal and illegal means. To the extent possible, he has avoided providing a negative example, or at least minimized it. He has gone through an exile in purgatory, but he has also shown that one can provide needed revelation of truths, and not necessarily be thrown in solitary—as of yet.
No, there is no “good” country for Snowden to run to—but anyone can put Snowden to use for propaganda purposes, no matter where he goes, or what he does. Snowden being in Russia demonstrates only that there really is no appropriately free and transparent country to run to. His presence there doesn’t endorse anything, or trivialize the oppression of anyone. If anything, it underscores the pervasiveness of this oppression. The methods and degrees may vary from country to country, but does knowing what country Snowden is in right now make you think of the substantial differences between Russia and the United States, or the sad similarities?
Is no one to stand up to the United States or any other power, until there is a morally pure country to run to? Should civil rights action in the south have waited until the north developed a perfect track record on race? Those would be long waits, indeed.  And wouldn’t it be nice if the U.S. had to clean up it’s own act before pressuring others—including those with far worse records—to do the same?
If saving our society were truly reliant on living in fear about how everything we say and do looks and sounds, and reliant on resignation to being spied on or even tortured—with inconsistent regard for whether anything has been done to arouse reasonable suspicion—I would have to wonder who or what was truly being protected from anything, and if what was left of our society was worth saving.
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