Like so many others, I was thrilled by Edward Snowden’s online chat yesterday at the Guardian. It seemed to me an incredible display of citizen leadership. For Snowden has sacrificed his home, his future, his romantic relationship, and maybe too his life, as he hinted darkly, for the principle of the people’s right to decide on the nature of their government. When asked why he’d done what he’d done, he seemed to echo the Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, saying, “This country is worth dying for.”
The dramatic performance also had a very practical aim: challenging a president whose aversion to drama used to be something he bragged about. Snowden two or three times called out Obama for a lack of leadership.
This disclosure provides Obama an opportunity to appeal for a return to sanity, constitutional policy, and the rule of law rather than men. He still has plenty of time to go down in history as the President who looked into the abyss and stepped back, rather than leaping forward into it.
Questioning the character of the president he’d once believed in, Snowden said that Obama has not been willing to spend the “political capital” necessary to end human rights violations.
shortly after assuming power, he closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge….
Everyone on the left understands this now about Obama: He does not know how to commit personal capital to a principle. While Snowden spends every ounce in his possession. Obama himself seems to understand this. In his interview with Charlie Rose last night, he tried to get on Snowden’s side by saying over and over we need a national “debate.”
Snowden is like Obama in that he thrust himself on to the national scene as an idealist and change agent. This New York Times profile of him emphasizes his ambition and sense of grandeur despite the fact that he didn’t graduate from high school– a fact Snowden made a joke about yesterday:
“If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.”
And let’s be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with ambition and grandeur: they are the necessary motors for independent people of achievement.
Because I believe in Snowden’s leadership, I am most afraid that he will be silenced in months and years to come. I think we actually need his voice and wisdom, that despite his poetical claim that the current climate is breeding whistle-blowers–
Citizens with a conscience are not going to ignore wrong-doing simply because they’ll be destroyed for it: the conscience forbids it. Instead, these draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers–
–Snowden is special, he is a person of mental scope and civic commitment, who is not unsocialized, as some media reports would have it, no, he is sophisticated, witness the methods he chose of going forward. And it is vital to have someone of such large intellectual and personal dimensions engaged to help us sort these complex issues out.
What a shame that the mainstream media is completely on the fence about Snowden. They know that Snowden has struck a chord in the American public. But they are afraid to come out against him or for him, because they don’t want to go against the government. You’d think that NPR’s Brooke Gladstone would embrace the principle of human knowledge as a corrective to unlimited national power in the computerized age of surveillance– no, like everyone else with a mainstream seat, her comments on Snowden waffled meaninglessly.
As Snowden himself observed,
“Initially I was very encouraged [by the media]. Unfortunately, the mainstream media now seems far more interested in what I said when I was 17 or what my girlfriend looks like rather than, say, the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history.”
A couple of other Snowden comments I especially liked yesterday. Here’s another challenge to Obama’s leadership:
If the Obama administration responds with an even harsher hand against me, they can be assured that they’ll soon find themselves facing an equally harsh public response.
the US Government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me. Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped.
And here is a lecture on constitutional principle that I find stirring:
Congress hasn’t declared war on the countries – the majority of them are our allies – but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people. And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we’re not even fighting? So we can potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own Police? No, the public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the “consent of the governed” is meaningless.
… More fundamentally, the “US Persons” protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%. Our founders did not write that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.”..
Here is his destruction of Dick Cheney for calling him a traitor, then lumping in the other national security clones:
It’s important to bear in mind I’m being called a traitor by men like former Vice President Dick Cheney. This is a man who gave us the warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineering a conflict that has killed over 4,400 and maimed nearly 32,000 Americans, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead. Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, Feinstein, and King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.