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Confessions of an Edward Snowden apologist

February 16, 2014, at 8:53 PM

I've been away for some (successful) surgery, and perhaps the painkiller withdrawal, associated with mood swings, has got me thinking very carefully about what folks who are fascinated by the National Security Agency surveillance debate are really thinking about.

Like, what's going on in their guts.

As much as I don't want to write about Edward Snowden, I have come to believe that, through all of the fog and the Twitter rants and the tribalism and boosterism and heroism, the debate we are having, or where we stand in this debate, revolves around the central question of whether America is indispensable and somehow different, and whether Americans deserve to have their government protect their rights more than they do the rights of other innocent human beings who by accidents of birth don't have certificates attesting to their American citizenship.

The debate about NSA surveillance is a judgment about America's claim to be exceptional in a way that tends towards the good.

In The New Republic, Sean Wilentz understands that Glenn Greenwald, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden have deeply considered beliefs about the past, present, and future role of America in the world. (It's curious to see his critics resort to ad hominem attacks to criticize his ad hominem attacks on these three men's penchant for ad hominem attacks to rebut criticism.) He notes that these beliefs differ.

It would be recursive at this point to wade into the argument about whether the United States has some sort of special claim to the moral high ground, or is so essential to the global order of things that we citizens are willing to overlook, excuse, rationalize, and justify crimes committed by it because the preservation of the state is the highest order good we can reasonably and concretely hope to protect.

To be honest, I still have trouble every time I remember that the history of the U.S. Air Force is yoked to a hungry desire to kill as many people as possible in the shortest period of time. And the atom bombs, and all that. But at the same time as all of this evil was being loosed upon the world, the United States, in spite of the best efforts of its presidents, and sometimes because of them, has kind of become the closest thing there is to an essential glue that keeps away chaos and the apocalypse.

This is why, not incidentally, I am also very reluctant to just condemn Edward Snowden and take sides against him.

He broke the law and has to hang out in Russia for the rest of his life. I do not feel sorry for him, nor do I particularly care to concoct a post-facto legal justification for his conduct, and I certainly can't confidently speak to what harm to certain declared American interests might come from his actions. (Will his disclosures make it easier for bad people to communicate? Yes. Of course. Will they make it easier for good people to communicate more privately? Of course.)

But I admit: I kind of like what Snowden has forced all of us to do. Not in theory, but in practice.

Point one: He is a course corrector. At some point down the line, we will be glad that, at this point in our history, someone like him was moved to act, to fill in the blanks that our words, laws and practices all created. Secret laws. Beguiling official rhetoric. Government-as-marketing. I would one day like to write a book about how a lot of our country's moral progress, a lot more than some might think, has come from people who leak classified information, and even information that could very well cause national security harm in the short-term. The gap between what America aspires to do and what it does is closing. These disclosures are like super-sutures. We are that inattentive cyclist; he is the person who opens cab door that slams into us and throws us to the ground.

Point two: His role in helping us debate surveillance, citizenship, and America's role in the world is now essential.

Tu quoque? What Edward Snowden says boils down to: All those bad things? We do them too. And we shouldn't. Because we're special.

And his opponents say: Of course we do it. And we should. Because we're special.

Many of Snowden's journalistic and writer interlocutors don't share his belief that America is or was a beacon for moral progress. But they do share the belief that it should be. How we look at each other, and what we keep to ourselves, and how autonomous we can reasonably expect to be, and how much electromagnetic detritus we sell, or give off. We can't really think clearly about these questions unless we know what specifically the government can and is doing.

If believing this makes me an Edward Snowden apologist, then I am an Edward Snowden apologist.

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