Edward Snowden will have his day in a criminal court—most likely in America. So calling him a self-indulgent traitor or law-abiding “whistle-blower” is unnecessary today. Nevertheless, what we think about Snowden’s motives and follow-up actions does influence the larger debate about the reach of the modern security state.
Are we dealing with a celebrity-seeker whose fame will fade by fall? Or has he confirmed that something rotten is going on in our democracy and it must be attended to?
I’m not ready to cosign a mortgage with Snowden. However, so far, what he’s done and said demonstrate rare competence and courage. Indeed, it’s exhilarating to see a computer geek light up Washington.
Old hands say that national politics aren’t as human as they used to be. Men don’t sweat, drink, and carouse across party lines the way they once did, when they got more done. Snowden has exposed that lie too. When esteemed leaders in the 3 branches of government are embarrassed, when their competence and integrity are questioned, they still get very angry and, in air-conditioned hearing rooms and rallying together, they vilify the insolent outsider.
A smooth line of attack is to declare that this troublemaker is “no saint.” Certainly, I’m not—and I know at least 1 person who thinks their morals are superior to mine. Jonathan Kay addressed this leveling proposition in his column "Edward Snowden is no traitor. But he's no saint".
Kay led by quoting Snowden’s own explanation for what he’d done: “I don’t want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.” Kay never suggested that Snowden was paranoid, only that his flight to numerous authoritarian havens was hypocritical.
If Snowden were a gentleman, he’d let his leaks speak for themselves. He’d be safe in solitary in an American prison and would not be adding to the debate he provoked.
It seems geeks don’t play by Queensbury rules. Political actors who make history, of course, don’t either.