Several months ago, I wrote about Edward Snowden and suggested that his failure to face prosecution was inconsistent the type of civil disobedience taught by Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I received many comments on that post suggesting that my view was naïve, given the overwhelming power of the US prosecutorial system. True, it is a powerful system, but it is one that remains subject to the checks and balances that protect people under our form of government. When you fail to face the music, you undermine the moral high ground of your disobedience, and you suggest that your actions were more about you than about the cause.
I continue to feel the irony of Snowden’s choices since that time, starting with a move to Russia, scarcely a place that values political freedom. A recent article in Prospect by George Packer has reinforced for me my original view by illustrating the downward path Snowden has been compelled to take since then. Here’s a summary excerpt from the article:
In the year since the first NSA disclosures, Snowdel has drifted a long way from the Thoreauvian ideal of a majority of one. He has become an international celebrity, far more championed than reviled. He has praised Russia’s and Venezuala’s devotion to human rights. His more recent disclosures have nothing to do with the constitutional rights of US citizens. Many of them deal with surveillance of foreign governments, including Germany and Brazil, but also Iran, Russia, and China. These are activities that, wise or unwise, fall well within NSA’s mandate and the normal ways of espionage. Snowden has attached himself to Wikileaks and to Assange, who has become a tool of Russian foreign policy and has no interest in reforming American democracy—his goal is to embarrass it. Assange and Snowden are not the first radical individualist to end up in thrall to strongmen.
Snowden’s contribution to America was to cause the country to catch its breath and think through the extent to which the government invades people’s privacy. There is little sign, though, that the body politic will act in any comprehensive way on these matters, or that the public at large cares enough to become politically active on them. Packer notes:
One valuable model for reform appeared last December, in “The NSA Report” of the President’s Review Group, a far-reaching set of recommendations for constraining data collection by the US government. Obama largely ignored it, perhaps counting on the waning attention of the American people.
By his absence from the US—yes, even from a prison cell—Snowden tossed away his possible influence in keeping the public debate alive. It has been the likes of the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” that have successfully pinged America’s conscience. Instead, Snowden’s choice of accepting the help of an unaccountable oligarch has forever deleted his influence back home.
Snowden looked to the internet for liberation, but it turns out that there is no such thing as an entirely free individual. … No one lives outside the fact of coercion—there is always a state to protect or pursue you, whether it’s Obama’s America or Putin’s Russia.