Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Situational Ethics and Eric Snowden

I haven't said much about the national surveillance state and the man who showed it to us because I haven't felt I had much to add to the most excellent commentary of many others. But now that the NSA is undertaking a PR blitz, aided and abetted by the formerly journalistic enterprise 60 Minutes, I finally feel moved to toss in my tuppence.

First, Glenn Greenwald talked with ABC News and had something surprising to say:

[Snowden] was very concerned that the government would find out what it was that he was planning on doing before he got a chance to meet with us and turn over the materials. I remember at the time thinking that he was probably a little paranoid in thinking there was this massive surveillance state that would be monitoring what it was that we were doing. Then once I did get the documents, and was able to read through them, and report on them, I realized that actually it was a byproduct of my ignorance, not his paranoia -- that we really do live in a kind of a surveillance state and he was quite right to be that worried.

I don't know if you were familiar with Greenwald's work before Snowden gave him the goods, but I read him regularly for years, ever since he was an independent blogger. And believe me, if Glenn Greenwald did not believe that we were under massive, secret surveillance just about nobody outside of the elect had a clue. And the courts were useless. The courts consistently found that nobody had standing to sue to find out what was going on because nobody could prove that they had been targeted, since it was all a secret. And members of Congress, who knew something about it but who had in fact been lied to about many matters, were forbidden by law to disclose what they knew publicly. So there was no oversight and no accountability, and no possibility of it. Anthony Romero of the ACLU explains this in more detail.

Snowden violated the law, and a specific oath. And he did not accept the penalty for his lawbreaking as is specified in much civil disobedience doctrine, although he has certainly paid a very high price. But this is not a standard set up for civil disobedience either. Jim Crow was not a secret, war is not a secret, and the penalty for sitting down at a lunch counter or throwing blood on a missile is not life-destroying. (Nelson Mandela was an armed insurrectionist, which is not civil disobedience, and he did not willingly accept his penalty, he got caught, with the help of the CIA. Whole different kettle of fish.)

Snowden discovered massive, almost unimaginable violations of the fundamental principles of democracy and individual rights around which there is a very broad, non-partisan and trans-ideological consensus in the United States. The atrocities he revealed would never have been known to the people who were paying for them, form whose benefit it is ostensibly being done, and who believed they enjoyed fundamental rights of protection from such practices, had Snowden not acted as he did. And the only reason this was all secret is because the perpetrators -- including two presidents -- knew damn well that the people would never tolerate it.

So he had no other ethically defensible choice. He had unparalleled courage to do what the truth demanded. Absolutely, he should be given amnesty and the opportunity to rejoin our society as a respected citizen -- and a hero.

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