By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Crime and Punishment! The perfect title for the fugitive stuck in transit lounge limbo at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. And maybe, for the first time in his young life, Edward Snowden has time to read it.
Who, I wonder, dreamed up this stunt? Snowden himself? In a moment of despair, maybe, because you’d think he’d prefer a copy of Born Free, in which the pet lioness Elsa eventually returns to the wild. Or was it Snowden’s lawyers, the Russian ones or those from Wikileaks? Probably neither, if they have any interest in maintaining his morale. Or, most delicious of all, could it have come from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s been so adroitly toying with Snowden?
The Death Penalty Obstacle
At any rate, we probably can’t attribute the witty book idea to anyone in the super somber Obama administration, although someone in the Justice Department may have registered the title on a deeper level. To wit: a country that doesn’t allow capital punishment isn’t likely to hand Snowden over to U.S. prosecutors raring to exact the severest of possible punishments. By and large, as compared to Russia or China, I’d rather be tried in American courts, but losers in America can be fried, hanged or dosed to death. In Russia, where Snowden currently languishes, they simply get mistreated.
And so, speaking of crime and punishment, did some especially bright young lawyer in the U.S. Justice Department figure out that Putin might find it easier to march this guy onto the next flight to New York if the worst he’d face were a mere 1000 years or so of jail time? Anyhow, that offer—no death penalty—is now on the table. Let’s see if Putin bites.
Here’s a further bonus for the Obama administration: other countries may be less tempted to tender offers of refuge, whether on compassionate grounds or simply to stick it to the U.S., if the guy’s allowed to slouch around in unflattering orange for the next 50 years, a real possibility, given Snowden’s age. Not quite seriously, I find myself wondering if a white collar jail would be worse punishment for Snowden than being marooned in a cyber backwater like Equador—unless he can count on a regular supply of coca leaves to alleviate his boredom.
Fight or Flight?
In any event, for Snowden as for Bradley Manning, the whistle-blower vs. traitor debate continues. Manning, of course, was smart enough to sit tight, whereas Snowden fantasized the possibility of escaping the long arm of U.S. law. Yes, I understand the urge, the instinct, to flee. But I was astounded to learn that he had fled first to Hong Kong, whose authorities would never shelter a dissident objectionable to Beijing, and then got on a flight that landed him more or less in Russian hands. Moscow, like Beijing, has zero interest in allowing foreign libertarians to wander around the country finding (and trumpeting) fault.
Flight was perhaps a naive move, but it was also a move that puts Snowden in greater jeopardy of the traitor label. The U.S. was already quarreling with China over cyber spying and piracy, and Russia-U.S. relations in the national security sphere are nearly as rocky.
Meanwhile, lawfully or not, Edward Snowden has done the rest of us a favor. He has earned the gratitude of the many Americans who have become increasingly concerned about the extent to which this and the previous administration have kept us in the dark, partly through non-disclosure, partly through deceit, regarding the regime of total surveillance and sophisticated data mining under which we are now apparently living. There have been hints of secret snooping, of course, bits and pieces that have found their way into the more thoughtful mainstream publications. But thanks to Snowden, we have a more complete picture of what’s been going on. The days of denial and double-talk are over.
Americans fear terrorism, partly because wariness makes sense, more because they’ve been subjected to an unending fear campaign by their own leaders, but they fear the Big Brother state even more. Congress may have reauthorized the more controversial sections of the Patriot Act, but the debate, however brief, had to be conducted in public. This in itself was refreshing, but the discussion is far from over, especially since the Republican Party is seriously split on the issue.
For a very lucid summary of the surveillance situation that Snowden has so helpfully lifted the lid off, I’d recommend a reading of “They Know Much More Than You Think” by James Bamford in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books.
After you read that, let me suggest that you see a new film that everyone needs to see. It’s entitled Hannah Arendt, and it's about the brilliant mid 20th century German-American philosopher who outraged fellow holocaust survivors by writing Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, a book that still serves to sensitize all readers to the danger posed by bureaucrats who obey orders like puppets with no personal moral sense or conscience. The NAZI bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann contended that it was his sworn duty to rubber stamp the papers that sped Jews through his segment of the journey to Auschwitz. Buy the book in the likely event the film isn’t being shown at your local multiplex.
Seen in the lightof the Eichman trial, the Manning and Snowden cases demand an answer to this question: do we Americans want the people who work for our government to suppress their capacity for independent thought and moral outrage like modern day Adolf Eichmans? Or shall we rather be thankful and relieved when American Snowdens and Mannings jeopardize their own security to let us know how shamefully our government is treating us—or anyone else? Given the extent of the illegal surveillance and related gross abuses of the American judicial system, including preventive detention, closed courts, uncontestable evidence and secret interpretations of the law, to say nothing of torture, who has betrayed us more deeply? These young whistleblowers? Or the superiors who would be happy to see them hanged?