Edward Snowden is a reminder that patriotism — as Samuel Johnson noted two and a half centuries ago — is the last refuge of a scoundrel. At least that's what the U.S. government — which has formally accused Snowden of espionage — would have you believe.
Snowden surely knew this would be the government's reaction. What Snowden apparently didn't figure out in his narcissistic haze is that defectors, like a gallon of milk, are only good for a short time before they grow stale and worthless. The Chinese know this. They wrung Snowden dry, tweaked the U.S., and let Snowden leave — blaming Washington for not following proper extradition procedures.
Ditto for the Russians. Vladimir Putin, no friend of America and contemptuous of President Obama, apparently won't let Snowden in, which would make already strained relations between Washington and the Kremlin even worse. But Putin, the former KGB agent who called the collapse of the Soviet Union a "catastrophe," no doubt dispatched agents to Sheremetyevo Airport — where Snowden reportedly may be holed up — for a chat.
So where does this leave Snowden, currently a man without a country? His options appear to be few. He's expressed interest in Iceland but has apparently been spurned. There's talk of him heading to Cuba, where the tottering Castro regime has jousted with 11 presidents. But the likely choice appears to be Ecuador, a poor country where travelers are warned not to drink the water unless they're cool with bacterial diarrhea, typhoid, or leptospirosis (I looked it up and it's as bad as it sounds).
Here's an irony that Snowden might be unaware of: For a man who howls about violation of civil liberties in America, he'd be dependent, in Ecuador, on a government that just passed a law that locals say will muzzle free speech. Among other things, notes the Miami Herald, it "makes the publication of private communications — WikiLeaks' bread and butter — illegal."
But is Snowden a hero or a traitor? He's a hero for exposing deep government lies about its abuse of our civil liberties. This is, of course, a very serious matter needing further exploration. But Snowden is also a traitor. That's an issue that has broad bipartisan consensus in Washington, where large majorities of both Republicans and Democrats want Snowden punished — if he is ever caught. The citizenry agrees: A USA Today/Pew survey says by a 54 percent to 38 percent margin, Americans want him prosecuted.
What would you call a man who deliberately passed information to a rival nation? According to the South China Morning Post, Snowden served up on a silver platter details about U.S. espionage efforts in China, including hacking of Chinese mobile phone companies and targeting elites at that country's top Tsinghua University. He may be a hero in the eyes of civil libertarians, but he has also turned around and placed those very citizens in potential jeopardy by passing secrets to China, and, perhaps Russia. Snowden originally tried to portray himself as a lonely hero speaking truth to power. He now comes off as a smug, narcissistic Benedict Arnold.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Yes, Republicans can impeach President Obama
- The mystery behind China's aggressive push into space
- Why Texas' abortion rates aren't falling as quickly as everyone expected
- The 5 best and worst states for a well-lived life
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- What religious traditionalists can teach us about sex
- Why all drugs should be legal. (Yes, even heroin.)
- 7 ideas from ancient thinkers that will improve your modern life
- The science behind Captain America's shield, The Hulk's anger, and more
- The weird obsession that's ruining the GOP
Subscribe to the Week