BOGUE: A false hero

We should not admire Edward Snowden

This past Sunday, The New York Times published an opinion article by two German politicians calling for their country to grant Edward Snowden asylum. To jog your memory: Snowden was the former employee of an National Security Agency contractor who, in May of this year, leaked up to 200,000 classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs to a British newspaper. He subsequently fled to Hong Kong and now resides in Russia under temporary asylum. Malte Spitz, a Green Party politician, and Hans-Christian Ströbele, a member of the Green Party in the Bundestag (German parliament) called on their nation’s leaders to offer asylum to the man who they claim has “opened the eyes of the world.”

Snowden may be old news, but clearly the idea that he is some sort of hero or martyr is still alive and kicking. Such thinking is wrongheaded. Snowden’s decision to betray the trust of not only his employer but of the entire United States should be vilified, not celebrated. Spitz and Ströbele claim that Snowden is “paying a high price” for his efforts, namely in that he can “no longer lead a normal life.” At what point is it sacrificial or noble to breach the trust of the American government and then flee beyond the jurisdiction of our laws? The American people should not encourage those we entrust with our state secrets to act on their own conscience, disclosing critical information to the press whenever they feel compelled to do so. Snowden may claim to have acted on behalf of the American people, but his respect for us doesn’t extend so far as to submit himself to our judgment or our system of justice. Had he decided to stay in the United States and face the consequences for his actions, the grounds for martyrdom would be less shaky. Instead, we are confronted with the bizarre claim that a man who flees punishment for his crimes is in any way worth revering.

Some may claim that what Snowden did was aimed at some greater good, some virtuous objective, and that punishing him for his actions would be a perversion of justice. They squirm at the thought of calling Snowden’s actions “criminal.” Yet I would challenge those who hold such an opinion to consider the ramifications of accepting such behavior — we would in essence be validating the decision to act in direct violation of U.S. law on the basis of moral conviction. The harms from allowing each employee of the NSA to act on his conscience are manifold. Surely NSA contractors who felt strongly about other programs — such as surveillance of Al-Qaeda operatives — should not feel free to leak such critical information to the press. Should we encourage those in Snowden’s position to use their own best judgment as to whether substantial harms will come about from their treason, and then act accordingly? Obedience to the law is a civil duty, necessary for the functioning of any state. As soon as we start making exceptions to this rule, especially on the basis of moral qualms, we enter dangerous territory.

Of course, many will counter that following a clearly unjust or immoral law would itself be immoral. Was Mandela wrong for fighting apartheid? What about Rosa Parks? The question of civil disobedience is a tricky one, and cannot be fully addressed in a single column, but it does not apply to the Snowden case for the simple reason that his actions have real, dangerous consequences for American citizens. Organizing sit-ins and peaceful demonstrations is one matter; exposing to the world how the American security apparatus works is another. In fact, Snowden’s grasp of the situation is itself highly questionable. We should be skeptical of the claim that the director of the NSA himself fully understands his organization, much less an employee of a single consulting firm working for a single operations center of the NSA. The American people gave no moral mandate to Snowden to act as he wished; rather, it can be argued that our expectation of him was that he would not break our trust when placed in a position of great power and responsibility.

We do not need to examine the consequences of Snowden’s actions to reject them on the basis of precedent. Perhaps — and this would be exceedingly difficult to determine — more good will come from this situation than harm. That would be a fortunate occurrence, but not a justifying one. As soon as we allow for agents of the state or even citizens of our nation to exempt themselves from common laws on the basis of moral conviction, we allow each person to become, as Justice Brandeis once put it, “a law unto himself.” Obedience to our nation’s laws is particularly critical when one is vested with confidential information. Snowden is no hero. It’s time to recognize it.

Russell Bogue is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Thursdays.

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