Edward Snowden: Traitor or Whistle Blower?
Is Edward Snowden a traitor or a whistle blower? It’s been a point of debate since Snowden leaked classified National Security Agency (NSA) information. The documents reveal, as first reported in The Guardian, that the NSA “has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants… [as] part of a previously undisclosed program called Prism, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats.” The communications companies are denying their involvement and the government is accusing Snowden of espionage and compromising national security. At the same time, others are defending him as a whistle blower who exposed serious violations of the US constitution, such as former Senator Gordon Humphrey and Andrew P. Napolitano, a former judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey and senior judicial analyst at Fox News Channel.
The Good and Bad of Moral Arguments
Whether you think Snowden is a good guy or a bad guy may have less to do with the facts of this particular situation and more to do with your moral values. Social science research suggests that if you value loyalty highly, then you may be prone to viewing Snowden as a traitor. If, however, you value fairness highly, you are apt to look sympathetically on whistle blowers in general and Snowden in particular. But whether the social science research is true or not, the Snowden question is a moral question in this sense: We mistakenly believe that moral codes govern our behavior. Before we act or form our opinions, we consult our moral compasses and value systems and act accordingly. The problem is that that formulation of human behavior has it completely backwards. We don’t act on our values, we act first and only later do we come up with explanations in terms of morals or values to make ourselves look good. Why? Because the most important thing of all to any of us is not loyalty or fairness or privacy or security but our own reputations. In other words, moral arguments are less about knowing if someone like Snowden is a good guy or a bad guy and much, much more about making the case that we and our group are the good guys. Moral arguments are self and group justifying narratives.
Winning or losing those arguments have real life consequences because the outcome determines whether we can maintain our sense of ourselves and our group as the good guys. No one wants to be a bad guy, which is what’s so wonderful about human beings! Not even those we label as bad guys think of themselves as bad guys so we all tend to go through a lot of mental gymnastics to avoid seeing or hearing evidence which might disrupt our narratives. The question is: Can we put aside our deep seated need to be good long enough to arrive at an honest assessment of Snowden?
Seeking the Truth
I’m going to make a bold suggestion which may get me in hot water, but here goes: I do think we can make a determination about Snowden if we can shift the conversation from values to truth. I know, I know. The “truth” thing always gets people worked up, and I get that. Most people use the truth as a weapon but what I’m suggesting is that instead of clinging so strongly to our moral codes, we put our fear of not being the good guys aside long enough to actually listen to what Snowden is saying. He is a young man who has apparently conquered his fear big time. He has given up a comfortable six figure salary, a home in Hawaii, a long-time girlfriend and his family for the life of a fugitive. Perhaps we don’t want to listen to him because by contrast our fearfulness and desperate need for belonging looks the teeniest bit shameful.
If you care to take a listen, here’s what I transcribed from a video interview he gave to Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who broke the story. It was just days after the world got word that the US government was amassing a vast database of personal communications of people like you and me who were not under suspicion of any wrongdoing. Snowden was in Hong Kong at the time and offered this explanation of how he decided to do what he did:
Snowden: You can’t take on the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk because they are such powerful adversaries that no one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they’ll get you in time. But, at the same time, you have to make a determination about what it is that is important to you. And if living un-freely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept and I think that many of us are – it’s human nature – you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large paycheck for very little work against the public interest and go to sleep at night after watching your shows. But if you realize that that’s the world that you helped create and it’s going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression you realize that you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is so long as the public gets to make their own decisions about how that’s applied.
Greenwald: Why should people care about surveillance?
Snowden: Because even if you are not doing anything wrong you are being watched and recorded. And the storage capability of these systems increases every year, consistently, by orders of magnitude, to where it’s getting to the point where you don’t have to have done anything wrong. You have to just eventually fall under suspicion from somebody even by a wrong call and then they can use the system to go back in time and they can scrutinize every decision you ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with and attack you on that basis to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrong doer.
If we cling to our moral codes and our belief in our own goodness we may convince ourselves that we will be exempt from the risk of our “innocent life” being misinterpreted. Snowden risked everything he has, including his belonging to family and nation, so we will see the truth that no one will be exempt from that risk. Not even me. Not even you. Truth is hard to live with, but truly good guys find the courage to do it.