This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Dear Edward Snowden,
Billions of us, from prime ministers to hackers, are watching a live espionage movie in which you are the protagonist and perhaps the sacrifice. Your way forward is clear to no one, least of all, I’m sure, you.
I fear for you; I think of you with a heavy heart. I imagine hiding you like Anne Frank. I imagine Hollywood movie magic in which a young lookalike would swap places with you and let you flee to safety—if there is any safety in this world of extreme rendition and extrajudicial execution by the government that you and I were born under and that you, until recently, served. I fear you may pay, if not with your death, with your life—with a life that can have no conventional outcome anytime soon, if ever. “Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped,” you told us, and they are trying to stop you instead.
I am moved by your choice of our future over yours, the world over yourself. You know what few do nowadays: that the self is not the same as self-interest. You are someone who is smart enough, idealistic enough, bold enough to know that living with yourself in a system of utter corruption would destroy that self as an ideal, as something worth being. Doing what you’ve done, on the other hand, would give you a self you could live with, even if it gave you nowhere to live or no life. Which is to say, you have become a hero.
Pity the country that requires a hero, Bertolt Brecht once remarked, but pity the heroes too. They are the other homeless, the people who don’t fit in. They are the ones who see the hardest work and do it, and pay the price we charge those who do what we can’t or won’t. If the old stories were about heroes who saved us from others, modern heroes—Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Rachel Carson, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi—endeavored to save us from ourselves, from our own governments and systems of power.
The rest of us so often sacrifice that self and those ideals to fit in, to be part of a cannibal system, a system that eats souls and defiles truths and serves only power. Or we negotiate quietly to maintain an uneasy distance from it and then go about our own business. Though in my world quite a few of us strike our small blows against empire, you, young man, you were situated where you could run a dagger through the dragon’s eye, and that dragon is writhing in agony now; in that agony it has lost its magic: an arrangement whereby it remains invisible while making the rest of us ever more naked to its glaring eye.
Private Eyes and Public Rights
Privacy is a kind of power as well as a right, one that public librarians fought to protect against the Bush administration and the PATRIOT Act and that online companies violate in every way that’s profitable and expedient. Our lack of privacy, their monstrous privacy—even their invasion of our privacy must, by law, remain classified—is what you made visible. The agony of a monster with nowhere to stand—you are accused of spying on the spies, of invading the privacy of their invasion of privacy—is a truly curious thing. And it is changing the world. Europe and South America are in an uproar, and attempts to contain you and your damage are putting out fire with gasoline.
You yourself said it so well on July 12th:
“A little over one month ago, I had family, a home in paradise, and I lived in great comfort. I also had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize, and read your communications. Anyone’s communications at any time. That is the power to change people’s fates. It is also a serious violation of the law. The 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution of my country, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous statutes and treaties forbid such systems of massive, pervasive surveillance. While the US Constitution marks these programs as illegal, my government argues that secret court rulings, which the world is not permitted to see, somehow legitimize an illegal affair. These rulings simply corrupt the most basic notion of justice—that it must be seen to be done.”
They say you, like Bradley Manning, gave secrets to their enemies. It’s clear who those enemies are: you, me, us. It was clear on September 12, 2001, that the Bush administration feared the American people more than al-Qaeda. Not much has changed on that front since, and this almost infinitely broad information harvest criminalizes all of us. This metadata—the patterns and connections of communications rather than their content—is particularly useful, as my friend Chris Carlsson pointed out, at mapping the clusters of communications behind popular movements, uprisings, political organizing: in other words, those moments when civil society rises to shape history, to make a better future in the open world of the streets and squares.
The goal of gathering all this metadata, Chris speculates, “is to be able to identify where the ‘hubs’ are, who the people are who sit at key points in networks, helping pass news and messages along, but especially, who the people are who spread ideas and information from one network of people to the next, who help connect small networks into larger ones, and thus facilitate the unpredictable and rapid spread of dissent when it appears.”
Metadata can map the circulatory system of civil society, toward what ends you can certainly imagine. When governments fear their people you can be sure they are not serving their people. This has always been the minefield of patriotism: loyalty to our government often means hostility to our country and vice-versa. Edward Snowden, loyalist to country, you have made this clear as day.
Those who demonize you show, as David Bromwich pointed out in a fine essay in the London Review of Books, their submission to the power you exposed. Who stood where, he writes,
“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.”
You said, “I know the media likes to personalize political debates, and I know the government will demonize me.” Who you are is fascinating, but what you’ve exposed is what matters. It is upending the world. It is damaging Washington’s relations with many Latin American and some European countries, with Russia and China as well as with its own people—those, at least, who bother to read or listen to the news and care about what they find there. “Edward Snowden Single-Handedly Forces Tech Companies To Come Forward With Government Data Request Stats,” said a headline in Forbes. Your act is rearranging our world. How much no one yet knows.
What You Love
What’s striking about your words on video, Edward Snowden, the ones I hear as your young, pale, thoughtful face speaks with clarity and incisiveness in response to Glenn Greenwald’s questions, is that you’re not talking much about what you hate, though it’s clear that you hate the secret network you were part of. You hate it because it poisons what you love. You told us, “I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions… but I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon, and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant.” You love our world, our country—not its government, clearly, but its old ideals and living idealists, its possibilities, its dreamers, and its dreams (not the stale, stuffed American dream of individual affluence, but the other dreams of a better world for all of us, a world of principle).
You told us where we now live and that you refuse to live there anymore:
“I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. And that’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build, and it’s not something I’m willing to live under. America is a fundamentally good country. We have good people with good values who want to do the right thing. But the structures of power that exist are working to their own ends to extend their capability at the expense of the freedom of all publics.”
Which is to say you acted from love, from all the things the new surveillance state imperils: privacy, democracy, accountability, decency, honor. The rest of us, what would we do for love?
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“You’re a Sacrifice”: An Open Letter to Edward Snowden