It’s July 4, birthday of the American revolution, and two Ivy League historians, Steve Walt and David Bromwich, are celebrating the man in the transit lounge at the Moscow airport, Edward Snowden.
Walt writes that the founding fathers (sorry about that) would approve, because they broke the law, too, to a higher end:
isn’t it also possible that they would have seen in him a kindred spirit — someone who took an irrevocable step on a matter of principle? In particular, they might have seen in him a man who recognized the natural tendency of governments to extend their control over citizens, usually in the name of national security.
Let us not forget that the Founding Fathers repeatedly warned about the dangers of standing armies, which they rightly understood to be a perennial threat to liberty. Or that James Madison famously warned that no nation can remain free in a state of perpetual warfare, a sentiment that Barack Obama recently quoted but does not seem to have fully taken to heart. The Founders also gave Americans the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because they understood that defending individual privacy against the grasp of government authority is an essential human right as well as an important safeguard of freedom.
…the Snowden affair reminds us that large and well-funded government bureaucracies have a powerful tendency to expand, to hide their activities behind walls of secrecy, and to depend on a cowed and co-opted populace to look the other way.
Snowden may have broken the law, but so did the Founding Fathers when they issued that famous declaration 237 years ago. They did so in defiance of a powerful empire, just as Snowden did. The world is better off that they chose to defy the laws of their time, and Snowden’s idealistic act may leave us better off too. I suspect Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the rest of those revolutionaries might have understood.
And here is Bromwich in the London Review of Books, on how deeply engraved authoritarianism now is in our culture.
Snowden had looked for ways of serving his country in the grim months after September 2001 (he would have been 18 then). He joined the army, hoping to be taken on in special forces, but broke both legs in a training accident and then dropped out, disaffected with an anti-Arab racism in the mood which took him by surprise. He had never finished high school but had no difficulty passing the test for a diploma equivalent. Since his computer skills were prodigious and easily recognised, he was an obvious candidate for well-paying security work in the IT industry, and, by his mid-twenties, had worked his way to the highest clearance for analysing secret data. At the same time he was educating himself in the disagreeable facts of America’s War on Terror, and the moral and legal implications of the national security state. He was pressed by larger doubts the more he learned. … In conversations with friends over the last few years, he made no effort to hide the trouble of conscience that gnawed at him. It also seems to be true – though in the interview he doesn’t clearly formulate the point – that even as he went to work and made use of his privileged access, he felt a degree of remorse at the superiority he enjoyed over ordinary citizens, any of whom might be subject to exposure at any moment by the eye of the government he worked for. The remorse (if this surmise is correct) came not from a suspicion that he didn’t deserve the privilege, but from the conviction that no one deserved it….
We, in America, now support a class of guardians who pass unchallenged through a revolving door that at once separates and connects government and the vast security apparatus that has sprung up in the last 12 years. The cabinet officers and agency heads and company heads ‘move on’ but stay the same, from NSA to CIA or from NSA to Booz Allen Hamilton; and to the serious players, this seems a meritocracy without reproach and without peril….. Nothing like this system was anticipated or could possibly have been admired by the framers of the constitutional democracies of the United States and Europe. The system, as Snowden plainly recognised, is incompatible with ‘the democratic model,’ and can only be practised or accepted by people who have given up on every element of liberal democracy except the ideas of common defence and general welfare…
What was most strange – but predictable once you thought about it – was how far the reactions cut across political lines. This was not a test of Democrat against Republican, or welfare-state liberal versus big-business conservative. Rather it was an infallible marker of the anti-authoritarian instinct against the authoritarian. What was distressing and impossible to predict was the evidence of the way the last few years have worn deep channels of authoritarian acceptance in the mind of the liberal establishment. Every public figure who is psychologically identified with the ways of power in America has condemned Snowden as a traitor, or deplored his actions as merely those of a criminal, someone about whom the judgment ‘he must be prosecuted’ obviates any further judgment and any need for thought.