Edward Snowden has been on my mind recently. His name has been back in the news recently because Congress has been revisiting many of the abuses that we never would have known about had Snowden not disclosed them to journalists 2 years ago. I also finally had a chance to see the absolute must-watch documentary that tracked the first meetings between Snowden and Glen Greenwald and subsequent initial public disclosures of the NSA's massive domestic spying operation.
Hero? Coward? Patriot? Traitor?
Prior to watching the film, I had loosely followed the epilogue of the disclosures. While hearing Snowden discuss his actions in his own words at a time before he likely understood their full ramifications on the world or his own life, I realized I had been a victim of the propaganda that sought to discredit and attack Snowden. The debate about Snowden has essentially divided between those who insist he is a traitor who disregarded the potential harm to the United States that could occur from his disclosures (a narrative that often seeks to suggest Snowden's ego and narcissism played a large part in his motivations) versus those who believe the disclosures were a heroic act of patriotism. Before seeing the movie and hearing Snowden describe what motivated him to take such drastic action and risk so much personally, I had probably begun to adopt the version of this story that painted Snowden as a naive kid, incapable of understanding the enormous global consequences of what he was doing. After having seen the movie, however, I can say that I am firmly and unapologetically in the Snowden Is a Patriotic Hero camp.
It is worth pointing out that Snowden specifically did not want the story to be about him. He was very wary of his identity being disclosed too early or the journalists who he chose to leak the information to writing stories about him as an individual. This trepidation was not because he feared the repercussions, but because he wanted the information to be the story. He wanted Americans to focus on just how terrifying and dangerous the domestic spying that our government has been conducting on us is. More on that in a moment, but I say this primarily to counter the idea that Snowden was some egotistical glory seeker, which I do think is relevant to the question of whether his actions were heroic (though not so much to the question of whether his actions were patriotic, to which the answer is an unqualified yes). Selflessness is, in my mind, a big indicator of heroism, or more accurately, actions with selfish motives are far less likely to be heroic.
So, the idea that Snowden's actions were motivated by self-interest is just plain wrong and, frankly, absurd. This was a young man not even 30 years old, making 6 figures a year and living with his beautiful girlfriend in Hawaii who had been entrusted with one of the highest national security clearances possible. He was not disgruntled, he was not some disillusioned or delusional wing nut and he was most certainly not anti-American. He gave up a very comfortable life to warn Americans about what was happening.
That is patriotism. Sacrificing for your fellow citizens. Protecting the freedoms we claim to love even when doing so is not the comfortable or expedient choice. The only people who can argue otherwise are those who choose to accept their authoritarian shackles with pride and swallow every load of bullshit this government, which has time and time again demonstrated its willingness to lie to its people, chooses to shovel down their throats.
The real question I am left with and have not seen asked anywhere is this: given what was happening and the number of people who must have known about it and the length of time during which the spying occurred, how many people sat silent? How many people chose the comforts of their positions and were willing to sacrifice the privacy of their countrymen?
Those are the cowards. Those are the traitors.
Addendum: As I was working on this entry, more Snowden smearing happened. Glenn Greenwald's take down piece of the unethical journalism that led to major newspapers echo chambering unsubstantiated and false claims of the British government is a must read.