Mailbag: 'Defending' Snowden and 'illegal' immigrants

May 5, 2014, at 4:00 PM

Occasionally, I'll respond to reader questions and complaints. Two posts of mine attracted some attention, and they call for some amplification.

Thora writes:

I'm just a casual observer and a regular reader of The Week. But the online version of your "defense" of Snowden is incredibly disturbing on all kinds of levels. You say you don't know anything about what you're talking about but you're ENTIRE article obviously indicates otherwise, and WTF are you doing publishing all that anyway."

Thora refers to my recent piece about what Edward Snowden did not compromise. I don't see it as a defense of what Snowden did. That would be beyond my ken and my capacity, and, frankly, not something I think I am able to do even as a matter of principle. At the same time, I wanted to bring to readers' attention a paradox about Snowden's campaign that I think even his defenders don't seem to get, and certainly one that his critics — and I am probably more of a critic than a defender — ignore. It is simultaneously true that Edward Snowden disclosed and in doing so compromised an entire category of intelligence gathering methods, and yet, at the same time, relative to the big picture, has not precipitated the disclosure of all that much.

Some secrets matter more than others, of course, so volume is not the best way to measure such things. But even within the realm of the "SI" compartment, the country's most sensitive techniques remain secret. If I were running the show at Liberty Crossing, I would worry about 1.7 million classified documents being in the possession of reporters — those reporters would certainly become targets for foreign governments' intelligence operations — but I would also be wary of using phrases that suggest that Snowden somehow has eviscerated the capacity of the government to collect secret intelligence. Hurt it? Yes. Snowden defenders cannot possibly claim to know that his disclosures in no way have harmed national security; it is reasonable to assume that they have.

His defenders ought to claim that the benefits of his disclosures outweigh those harms. It is beyond the realm of argument to simply ignore away the trade-offs inherent in his actions. "Harming national security" is a scare phrase, I realize, and just what constitutes a legitimate intelligence practice is very much in dispute, so I of course understand how one person's harm may seem like another person's shade-throwing on domestic surveillance and oversight, showing how the intelligence community and our politicians have not lived up to the ideals of the Republic.

Many people judge Snowden's motives. They evaluate the effect of his disclosures a priori; through that lens. That's just not something I feel qualified to do. I would rather evaluate the effect of his disclosures by trying to figure out the effect of his disclosures.

Now, to immigration.

A good many of you think that undocumented immigrants should be called illegal immigrants because regardless of what the law says, they are committing crimes as written into law by Congress and enforced by the executive branch. And yet, the immigration code that's enforced makes reference to "unauthorized" overstays of visas, not illegal ones.

I stand by what I wrote. Of course, an undocumented immigrant can break criminal immigration laws, and thus become an undocumented immigrant who has broken the law. But simply being in the United States without a proper visa is a civil offense. The word "illegal" has force because we associate it with criminality. It is a federal misdemeanor to enter the U.S. without a visa, but it is not against the law to BE in the U.S. illegally. That's a distinction with a difference!

"Illegal" is a term used to hurt people. Ordinarily, I don't like to use terms that hurt people and stigmatize them, especially if they don't deserve it. If they don't deserve it, and I choose to be mean to them, then I'm a dick. But hey — that's politics. If the term I used was accurate, then at least I would be an honest dick.

Let's say that you oppose immigration reform. For any reason at all, really. If you want to win an argument, then it might make sense to use loaded words to demonize the group whose rights you're arguing against. But when you decide to do that, you ought to accept the consequences of having chosen the low road over the high one.

This isn't political correctness. Really. I'm a big fan of the hurt versus harm distinction; I think speech codes are abominable; I think the government ought to draw the line very close to the flames in a theater when they regulate speech.

Free speech isn't consequence-free, of course. As Stanley Fish famously pointed out, there is no extrinsic point of speech that hovers magically above the real world and real world consequences. You can believe what you want and say just about anything, and so long as you're prepared to accept the fact that your speech, the moment it leaves your mouth, has social and cultural consequences for you and others, then speak up! Being mean to bad people has its place (although forgiving and encouraging their rehabilitation has its place, too).

But being mean to undocumented immigrants is just mean. And calling them "illegals" is inaccurately inhospitable.






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