It's true that, as Glenn Greenwald and others have written, the American media has focused attention on the supposed peccadillos of Edward Snowden so as not to have to spend too much time on the sweeping system of government surveillance he revealed. At least for now, the Obama administration has cornered the document-less whistleblower at Moscow's international airport, leaving him nowhere on the planet to go, or at least no way to get there. As a result, the media can have a field day writing negative pieces about his relationship to Putin's Russia.
So Greenwald certainly has a point, and yet it would be a mistake to ignore Snowden's personal story. After all, the unending spectacle of a superpower implacably tracking down a single man across the planet has its own educational value. It's been a little like watching one of those Transformers movies in which Megatron, the leader of the evil Decepticons, stomps around the globe smashing things, but somehow, time and again, misses his tiny human target. In this strange drama, in a world in which few eyeball-gluing stories outlast the week in which they were born, almost alone and by a kind of miracle Snowden has managed to keep his story and the story of the building of the first full-scale global surveillance state going and going. He seems a little like the Energizer Bunny of whistleblowers.
No matter what's written about him here in the mainstream, the spectacle of a single remarkably articulate and self-confident individual outwitting the last superpower has been, in its own way, uplifting. Although the first global polls haven't come in, I think it's safe to assume that from Bolivia to Hong Kong, Germany to Japan, Washington is taking a remarkable licking in the global opinion wars. Even at home, we know that, among the young in particular, opinion seems to be shifting on both Snowden's acts and the surveillance state whose architecture he revealed.
Given its utter tone-deafness and its flurry of threats against various foreign governments, the downing of Bolivian President Evo Morales's plane, and ever more ham-handed moves against Snowden himself, Washington is clearly building up a store of global anger and resentment, including over the way it's scooping up private communications worldwide. In the end, this twenty-first-century spectacle may truly make a difference. As Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch regular and author of the new book The Faraway Nearby, writes today, it's been a moving show so far. One man against the machine: if you've ever been to the local multiplex, given such a scenario you can't for a second doubt where global sympathies lie. Tom
Prometheus Among the Cannibals
A Letter to Edward Snowden
By Rebecca Solnit
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 U.S. 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."