Snowden and the Hero/Villain complex


In response to NYT to Obama: Stop Vilification of Edward Snowden:

Maybe it was inevitable we would watch our hybrid news media/pop culture/political engine choke on Edward Snowden.  He’s got to be either a Hero or a Villain, and while the media is usually reflexive in painting leakers and saboteurs of the Military-Industrial Complex as Heroes (sometimes tragic or conflicted heroes), in this case that would make Barack Obama the Villain, and he can’t be the Villain, because he is the ultimate pedestal-mounted 100%-varnish-free Hero of the media culture.  They’d really like to blame the rise of the surveillance state on George Bush, but there’s no way to do that while Obama is energetically defending his expansion of it, and insisting that no mistakes have been made.  

Snowden, of course, has attracted both supportive groupies and dismissive critics.  The former become very touchy when any of his eccentricities (or those of his press agent, Glenn Greenwald) are discussed.  It’s the same thing you get when Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is criticized.  How can anyone who exposes the secret inner workings of sinister government agencies be a bad guy?  If you think anything they did is wrong, you must think the Department of All-Seeing Evil is right.  And if you think the outcome is more-or-less desirable, because people really needed to know about the incredible lengths our government has gone to in its quest to monitor just about everybody, how can you be sternly critical of the steps taken to achieve that outcome?  (Or, to cite the rationale you get from the more brutally honest revolutionaries, maybe Snowden is a criminal, but sometimes we must learn to celebrate those who break the law for the greater good.)

I’m not one to underestimate the dangerous powers of the Obama vilification machine, but I don’t have any problem seeing Snowden as an outlaw and traitor, while simultaneously paying due attention to the material he revealed.  (I suppose that would give the brutally honest revolutionaries a bit of satisfaction.)  We cannot un-learn what we learned because of his revelations.  In turn, I find some of those revelations more disturbing than others.  I’m generally sympathetic to the argument that massive amounts of intelligence gathering are necessary to combat terrorism, in a world that offers increasingly little margin for error.  How far are we from the first serious nuclear terrorist attack?  Look at what’s going on with North Korea and Iran.  The odds of some aggressively bad actors getting their hands on a bomb, or a devastating quantity of easily dispersed radioactive material, grow worse by the day.  When they make their move, our intelligence services cannot afford to be wrong, not even once.

But even that general sympathy can be stretched to the breaking point.  It’s also perfectly appropriate to approve of the intelligence community’s mission while decrying the government’s efforts to avoid oversight, and to wonder how capabilities being used more or less responsibly today – there have been a few ominous hiccups in the surveillance state machinery already – might be abused tomorrow.

And with all of that said, I really, really, really hate the idea of self-appointed wikileaking crusaders deciding which governments get to keep secrets, and which ones do not.  I notice they have a rather pronounced tendency to give the really bad guys a pass, which at best is a result of apprehension about what the really bad guys are prepared to do, in order to shut them up.  A world in which the grimmest, most savage totalitarians are the only ones who can run secret operations?  No, thanks.  

Snowden violated oaths and betrayed a trust placed in him by the American people, through the agency of their government.  I’m not prepared to let one person decide what’s best for us, without due oversight and high standards of honor for the law.  That’s as true of Edward Snowden as it is of Barack Obama.  I don’t think we can afford to let either of them set precedents that will be followed to even worse effect by successors.  And contrary to the construction of “whistleblower” moral authority around Snowden, whistleblowers don’t dash off to luxury exile in foreign countries.  There is music to be faced, and one’s opinion of Snowden must be shaped by his refusal to face it.