Opinion: Snowden should face the music

July 11, 2013


Mohandas Gandhi went to Yeravda Central Prison.

Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Birmingham jail.

Nelson Mandela went to Robben Island.

Edward Snowden is going to Venezuela.

Or not. His destination was up in the air as these words were written. A Russian lawmaker tweeted on Tuesday that Snowden, the fugitive former U.S. contractor, had accepted asylum from Venezuela. Then the tweet was deleted and the official word was that there was no official word.

Whatever happens, one thing is obvious. Wherever Snowden goes, he has no intention of coming home to answer for what he did.

One struggles to know how to feel about that.

Many of us, after all, believe he struck a blow for freedom in leaking classified information revealing the breadth and depth of government spying on private citizens. But he seems not to have thought through the implications and likely outcomes of that act. How else to explain the fact that he has wound up trapped in the international transit zone at the Moscow airport, unable to enter the country, yet unable to leave because he has nowhere to go?

Well, that’s not quite accurate. Snowden is reported to be fielding offers of asylum from several nations including, besides Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua. It is worth noting that these would-be benefactors all have problematic recent relations with his own country. Surely that plays a part in their eagerness to get their hands on him.

One wonders if he understood what he was getting into. Civil disobedience is never without risk and one accepts this going in. To practice civil disobedience is, after all, to break the law in the conviction that doing so serves a higher moral law.

A visitor from China once asked Dr. Bernard Lafayette with some amazement how such a thing could be justified. Was that not a recipe for chaos? If every citizen can choose for himself or herself which laws to obey and which to ignore, does that not show disrespect for the very rule of law? Lafayette, a hero of the Civil Rights Movement, said no, because civil disobedience does not seek to evade punishment. One shows one’s respect for the rule of law, he said, by submitting to the penalties prescribed for breaking it.

Dr. Daniel Ellsberg would likely disagree; he supports Snowden’s flight to elude U.S. authorities. Ellsberg famously leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and faced a possible 115-year sentence for doing so. Charges were dismissed in 1973.

In an Op-Ed published Sunday by the Washington Post, he argued that Snowden’s situation cannot be compared to his — different circumstances, different era. Snowden, he writes, would likely be disappeared into solitary confinement if returned to these shores and have little chance to contribute to the debate on government surveillance.

Perhaps. But here’s the thing: Civil disobedience is, almost by definition, an act of faith. Not faith in government, nor even faith in law, but faith in vindication. It is an act that says, I am right, so I refuse to obey this law and will take my medicine until you see that I am right.

Snowden is not willing to do that, not willing to stand, with head held high, upon the courage of his convictions. There is something unseemly about that. It makes his action feel unfinished. And undermined.

Yes, there’s also something unseemly about some guy sitting safely behind his desk smugly advising some other guy to put the rest of his life at risk for the sake of principle. But consider the alternative. Should he go to some unfriendly nation and become a propaganda tool against his own country? No. There are no seemly options here — only a narrowing range of unseemly ones.

So Snowden should come home. You may say that is the worst possible choice, and you’d be right. It is the worst.

Except for all the rest.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


begin60 4 years, 7 months ago

Snowden will not receive a fair trial in the U.S. Just look at how Bradley Manning has been tortured and abused in prison. It's awesome that Mr. Snowden has had the bravado by becoming a fugitive to loudly proclaim that despite all rhetoric to the contrary, justice and equality do not prevail in the U.S. Citizens who support the stated U.S. ideals of freedom require asylum these days.

Under Obama, whistleblowers will no longer be tolerated. Post 9/11 , truth-tellers are no longer honored as patriots. They are smeared and defamed as criminal or disturbed minds. Law enforcement refuses to admit that political crimes or even protected speech in favor of our supposed civil rights rightfully exists. They brand dissenters as crazy or terrorists.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 7 months ago

Don't you find it interesting that the two countries Snowden has chosen to go to are countries not usually associated with either fair trials or freedom of speech. And the countries he's headed to, according to speculation in the media are likewise countries noted for things other than fair trials and free speech.

I've got to wonder if Snowden, while holed up in the Moscow airport, undoubtedly without unlimited internet access, if he regrets having dropped out of high school and had decided instead to finish school and just get a regular job like the rest of us.

To be a hero, someone has to know that what he has done is heroic. Snowden doesn't have the insight, discipline, nor intellect to even know what he has done. Frankly, he needs a great deal of time to contemplate the consequences of what he decided to do. Leavenworth has the ideal facilities for just such sort of contemplation.

uncleandyt 4 years, 7 months ago

Our media needs to face the music. Our highest paid reporters are propaganda parrots.

patkindle 4 years, 7 months ago

the media only reports stories that people want to hear as much as I would like to blame them , they just sell what people want to pay fpr

fiddleback 4 years, 7 months ago

A laughably quaint perspective -- no way will this kid opt to be a martyr for any cause. He certainly has nowhere near the maturity of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., or Nelson Mandela. And like most Gen Y kids, he would quickly go nuts sitting in a cell without a glowing screen to stare at. It's only a matter of time before he chooses his tropical haven. And it's just as well, because our culture has no attention span for anything, even martyrs for our own rights.

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