Edward Snowden is a hero who deserves our praise and thanks

Maybe now we know what happened to the Snowdens of yesteryear. Or at least to one of them.

“Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” is Joseph Heller’s wonderful pun on Francois Villon’s famous poem, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis,” with its refrain of “Ou sont les neiges d’antan,” which has been translated into English for centuries as “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” Heller delivers the pun in the middle of his great anti-war novel, Catch-22 about the character of Snowden who dies from shrapnel wounds sustained during a flight to conduct what the crew knows to be senseless bombing mission.

The Snowden in question these days is the great American hero, Edward Snowden, who has made himself a hunted man by revealing that the U.S. has been collecting and tabulating the metadata of every Verizon customer (and by implication every customer of every phone company).

But many, especially on the right, don’t think he’s a hero. David Brooks threw as much vitriol as is possible in print at Snowden today in his New York Times column. If it were up to Brooks, Edward Snowden would share the fate of Heller’s Snowden: dying cold and in excruciating pain in a freezing airplane, his blood and intestines oozing slowly from massive perforations of the abdomen.

Brooks says that Edward Snowden has betrayed his country, the Constitution, his friends, the cause of open government and the privacy of all of us.

Whether or not Snowden betrayed his country, friends and the Constitution is open to opinion. I tend to fall in the camp that says that sometimes you have to break the law to follow a higher law or to change an unfair law: That’s what Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John Lewis and Daniel Ellsberg did. And I believe that’s what Edward Snowden did.

Brooks is free to disagree, but to say that Snowden betrayed the cause of open government and the privacy of all of us is manipulative nonsense. Read Brooks’ words, and note that in the case of both open government and privacy he is making the same paltry argument: if you don’t let the government do it this way, it will do much worse (even if it’s illegal):

  • OPEN GOVERNMENT: “Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter. They limit debate a little more.”
  • PRIVACY: “If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods.”

Let us do it or we will do worse! Brooks’s reasoning is as absurdly self-serving as Milo Minderbinder, Colonel Cathcart, Doctor Daneeka and all the other figures of authority in Catch-22.

The last analogy I’m going to make between Heller’s great satire of the military-industrial complex at war and the current situation is to point out that Edward Snowden’s life now resembles that of Heller’s comic hero, Yossarian, at the end of the novel: on the run, unable to trust anyone, a deserter without a country. Yossarian, of course, was only trying to save himself. Edward Snowden was trying to save all of us from a government leaning ever more closely to an authoritarian police state. Edward Snowden deserves our thanks and he deserves our adulation as an American hero.

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