Before anyone jumps to conclusions, let me say that I am fiercely ambivalent about the Snowden case. I recognize that national security requires that at least some secrets be kept from the general public. I also believe that government is motivated to keep more secrets than necessary using tactics that are indefensible. In the present case, I suspect the latter.
Whatever damage Snowden has done, if any, must be weighed against the good that results from his exposure of the US government’s unprecedented collection of data on its citizens. The real damage, though, has little to do with the anti-terror campaign that spawned this type of snooping, but rather with the exposure of the United States’ growing weakness and ineptitude.
Snowden appears to be making fools of all who are crying for his capture. Hong Kong declined to hold him, Ecuador may agree to asylum, and the Soviet Union may play a role in helping him. To say the US has egg on its face is an understatement. More like a whole hen-house.
When a genuine traitor is exposed, there is generally a small cadre of nut cases who support him/her. Revealing battle plans or nuclear weapon secrets to known enemies stirs little sympathy. Wackos in isolated mountain sites with rifles and an incoherent agenda fare little better. This case is different. Snowden is getting support from a wide swath of the American public, and the authorities do not know what to make of it or do with it.
Maybe liberals and libertarians can now finally have a BBQ together. Even regular folk are monumentally perturbed that the US government has seen fit to gather data on all its citizens, by force and in secret, with only the promise that they won’t actually listen in. Snowdens’ revealing this disturbing fact to the public has made friends of even the most antagonistic groups.
And all for the good, I say. One may argue that Snowden did wrong, but no one can legitimately argue that we don’t need this debate. We may one day be thankful that someone had the guts to break a bad law.
I personally doubt that this breach will do much damage to US security, though I could be proven wrong. The damage that has been done has little to do with data and a lot to do with trust. America has become pathetic and its leaders paranoid, and the world knows it. Bad enough that other countries stick their fingers in our eye. Much worse is the fact that government has squandered its legitimacy in the eyes of its own citizens. We no longer trust government to do even those things that almost everyone agrees it should be doing.
In order for people to trust a government, it is critical for them to know that their rights are being protected. In those cases where secrecy is required, it is paramount that they do not find out they were had. Were gathering mega-data revealed in the context of a government having consistently told us the truth, we probably would have cut it some slack. In the wake of Benghazi, the IRS, and the AP wiretapping scandals, no borderline case of governmental judgment can be anything but explosive.
The US is now learning something it has not had to think about since it was a fledgling country. The world is not afraid of it and worse, does not think it speaks for goodness, truth, and light. Where once we were a beacon of freedom and individualism, we are now a smoldering pile of interest groups competing for government goodies. People with their heads in the trough don’t see the wolf at their backs.
The economic and political realms cannot be separated. One cannot simultaneously expect the government to provide more and more while interfering in citizens’ lives less and less. The essence of the welfare state is to take from the productive and give to the unproductive. At some point, the very notion that this is morally wrong becomes dangerous. Supporters of big government have no choice but to silence critics using whatever means necessary.
We have entered a dangerous phase in the United States. We have a few years at best to stave off economic calamity. The voices of those of us who see the dark and bitter end of the welfare state coming will become more of a threat to its defenders. Lacking arguments, they will lie, cheat, steal, and threaten. When possible, they will do so in dark corners. When not, they will become more bold. And more foolish. And more dangerous.
A few years ago, Snowden could not have broken wind without the government finding him and bringing him back. Now he thumbs his nose at the authorities and gets away with it in broad daylight. They hate him not so much for what he has done as for how much he has embarrassed them. And this is what we have come to, really–we are now a nation that no one takes seriously.
The harm done is hard to repair. How can one respect puppets and pretenders who inhabit the halls of power? How can one bend to the rule of law when the law is written by self-interested power junkies? Why should anyone feel obligated to be a good citizen when being a good citizen just gets you taxed and spied upon?
Snowden has ripped the bandage off our festering wound–a culture wherein the ideals of liberty, self-responsibility, and courage are infected with servitude, finger-pointing, and cowardice. We may survive terrorists knowing about our data collection, but we won’t survive vices like those. Thank you, Edward Snowden, for showing us what we are.