There’s serious disagreement over what Edward Snowden is. We can all agree on the basic facts of what he did, but we disagree about what to call him. He worked for the U.S. National Security Agency and contractors for the NSA. He saw things that he thought were wrong, so he turned over a lot of U.S. government secrets to a couple of newspapers, exposing details and making allegations about the government spying on its own people.
But is Snowden a hero or a villain? For many of us, he’s a hero. He’s exposed spying that we assumed was secretly going on. For those of us who believe this, he’s a hero for risking his life and his future to expose something that he believed was morally wrong.
The people who call Snowden a traitor fall into two camps. One is the group of politicians and bureaucrats who already knew what was going on and didn’t see anything wrong with snooping on the rest of us. Although I find that position legally and morally repugnant, it’s to be expected. It’s the other group of people who are more problematic. That’s the people who want Snowden arrested and put into prison because he broke the law.
I observed this conversation Saturday between a friend of mine and one of his friends. He started by posting a statement in support of Snowden, and the woman responded.
Woman: You don’t think he’s guilty?
Man: Guilty of what?
Woman: Not spying, I guess, anyway not spying for a foreign entity. But he does seem guilty of leaking intel. He did sign a document saying he wouldn’t, right?
Man: I assume so. But a countervailing condition also prevails: he also swore to uphold the public trust (Constitution). In other words, it’s not so easy. But I’m sure Snowden and most whistleblowers will get a “fair trial” in the federal court system — you know, the courts of the same government that is the charging party. <sarc/>
Woman: I don’t see him as a whistleblower. There were channels for him to go through, and there were checks and balances in place to handle overreach. He didn’t report anything illegal going on. That’s what a whistleblower is. He should have gone to Congress.
Man: It has been coming out that some members of Congress already knew about the unlawful activity of the NSA. Not a bunch of trustworthy people, I’d say.
Woman: True, but it’s not really a moral thing. It’s following the law. That’s what he was supposed to do.
I’ve emphasized the woman’s last comment, because that gets to the heart of the dispute. She believes that the argument is settled once you show that he broke the law. To her, following the law is more important than doing what’s right. But doesn’t significant change come from people who break the law when the law is unjust?
— Rosa Parks broke the law when she refused to give up her seat and move to the “colored” section of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. The law required the races to be segregated and the driver was just following the law when he designated the row where she was sitting for white passengers who had just gotten onto the bus. Parks was violating the law by refusing to obey his order. Was Parks morally wrong? Should she have obeyed the law instead?
— The dozen or so Germans who tried to assassinate Adolph Hitler in 1944 broke the law. They tried to murder the legally elected political leader of their country. By law, they were guilty of murder and treason. Four people were killed by the bomb they planted, even though Hitler wasn’t one of them. Were they morally wrong? Should they have obeyed the law instead?
— Chinese protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989 broke the law. The student-led popular protests involved a million people at their height, before the communist government declared martial law and crushed the protesters by sending in tanks and killing thousands of people. Who doesn’t remember the dramatic image of the man who stood in front of tanks as they rolled toward him during the protest? Were the protesters morally wrong? Should they have obeyed the law instead?
We could go on and on. Were the people who helped slaves escape from southern plantations in the 19th century wrong? They were breaking the law. Were people who helped Jews escape Germany during the Nazi regime wrong? They were breaking the law. Were Alexander Solzhenitsyn and other Russian dissidents wrong to publish novels and other work exposing the Soviets as the monsters they were? They were breaking the law.
Throughout history, brave people have broken the law when they believed that what was going on in the name of the law was immoral or unjust. Those people have always been opposed by people who served the unjust and immoral regimes which held power. Frequently, those men would defend their actions by asserting that they were simply obeying the law or following their lawful orders.
In this country, children are indoctrinated to obey what they’re told. It’s pretty much the same everywhere, so we end up with a world of people who are mostly willing to follow orders and do monstrous things. Those who want Snowden arrested and prosecuted are standing with a long line of people through history who have defended immorality by insisting that the law had to be upheld.
I strongly suggest that you read every word of Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay on “Civil Disobedience,” but let me quote one paragraph that speaks directly to the question of the people who obey governments and carry out things that are wrong:
The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others — as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders — serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few — as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men — serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.
Thoreau beautifully lays out the case for individuals to disobey the law when their consciences tell them that obeying the law is wrong. That’s the position in which Snowden found himself. He was legally obligated to keep the things he learned secret. But what he saw was wrong and evil, in the judgment of his own conscience — and I believe he was right.
Which side are you on? Are you on the side of the people who defend “the law” as made by immoral and dishonest legislators and bureaucrats? Would you have opposed the people I outlined earlier who broke laws in order to do what was right? Or would you be among those who supported the lawbreakers who were doing the right thing?
If you believe that human beings have the right to be left alone when they’re doing no wrong, you have no choice but to stand with Edward Snowden, no matter how many laws he broke. He followed his conscience — and he’s a hero for it.
Should we respect all law? Or is there a distinction between law and legislation? I don’t have time to get deeply into it, but if you’re interested in this question, I strongly recommend Frédéric Bastiat’s 1850 book, “The Law.” (The entire text is online here.) He argued that we all have natural rights and that governments which impose legislation or rules in violation of natural law have no right to enforce their edicts.
There are certain things that we all agree are right and wrong. Murder is universally considered to be against the law, as are stealing and kidnapping and a number of other things. But there are some things that aren’t so clear. When politicians and bureaucrats start making rules and forcing us to obey them — as they lecture us to trust them while they violate our basic rights — it’s time to break the rules even if the “authorities” call those rules the laws.
As Thoreau said in another portion of “Civil Disobedience,” we should encourage respect for what’s morally right, not just respect for the law. There are times when the only way to follow conscience is to break government’s laws.
We should celebrate the people who are willing to ethically break the law in order to do what’s right. That’s what makes Edward Snowden a hero.