In our earliest Politics and Government courses, we learn about how the United States set up a system of checks and balances to keep one particular part of government from becoming too powerful and thus, tyrannical. And so the branches were separated into executive, legislative, and judicial – each with distinct responsibilities and powers that could reel in the other two. We decentralized power from the federal to the state to give more power to the people and then imposed voting restrictions to make sure the people didn’t amass too much direct power themselves.
Unwritten into the three branches of government, but included in the Bill of Rights, is a fourth that, when used in the manner in which it was conceived, provides a check to an out of balance government that has merged the three branches into an monster of our own creation. At least, that’s what Edward Snowden is counting on the Fourth Estate to provide. His life, and much more, depends on it.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of fear, especially when we have the first hand experience of terrorism in our recent memory. Many of us in New York and Washington witnessed the assaults on 9/11 firsthand. I did. In the wake of fear, we forfeited certain rights in the name of safety. And that’s what this debate that the president keeps saying he’s open to having is really all about: how much of our civil liberties are we willing to sacrifice in the name of safety? The Patriot Act was born of a time where we, as a nation, felt vulnerable to violence. We allowed our legislators to loosen its grip on our search and seizure laws to intercept information from terrorists. It was for our safety, and because the image of three thousand corpses lay fresh in our minds, we gave a half-hearted protest. Because we weren’t really protesting it. Because it felt safe.
The great James Madison, in his discussion of what we should include in this radical experiment of a country, considered the checks on government to be tantamount to its lasting success. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
And yet, in giving the powers that be the go ahead to mine personal data, to torture, to assassinate, to use drones, to hold prisoners indefinitely and to persecute those who risk all to tell us about it is exactly a government who has failed to control itself. The checks aren’t working. The balance has tipped. And the last ditch effort of a true government of, by, and for the people is to bring the truth to the people through the press and hope they haven’t become so insulated by streams of information that they can discern what is at stake. And act.
The Fourth Estate cuts both ways: it can exonerate, and it can convict in the court of public opinion which wields incredible power. And the smear campaign predictably begins, with journalists combing through Snowden’s teenage web presence to his girlfriend’s salacious job. Much has been made about his GED, which speaks more to elitism than Snowden’s capability. It’s lazy, it misses the point, and it tarnishes the bad name that some liberals have already earned. It has prompted respected columnists like Rick Unger, political contributor to Forbes Magazine, to fabricate a quote and deride Snowden’s reputation and respectability based on it.
“Snowden declared, during a live chat with the Guardian on Monday, that he believes that “all spying is wrong.” And because it is Snowden’s personal judgment that all spying is wrong, he also believes it appropriate that he reveal our covert activities to affected foreign governments without a shed of concern for what the rest of his fellow Americans might think about this.”
Except nowhere in the transcript of Snowden’s live chatdid he voice that sentiment. It was a deliberate misquote and an example of shoddy journalism by a respected writer in a respectable publication. Why? The revelations that Snowden disclosed secrets about our spy programs to China and at the G20 summit in 2009 provide a welcome relief to those who only want to vilify. Yet if we’re to welcome truth and transparency as we say we do, why the urge to persecute a truth teller? Might it be because we want no part of the truth that’s coming to light, because it opens up a can of worms which, at its bottom, reveals that our president is not the liberal wet dream we hoped he would be? That even without Republican obstructionism lies a man whose political philosophy is more complex than the Aaron Sorkin screenplay we’ve written for him in our imaginations?
If we paint Snowden as a bad guy, does that make Obama good? Is this the dichotomy that we have to choose between? Yeah, I kind of think it is. Are we to vilify Snowden for making an awkward situation for the president at this year’s G8 summit? Or do we celebrate that a citizen is making our president take responsibility? That is the job of the populace, who cannot do so if they are not informed. That is the job of the Fourth Estate. It’s how we keep the powers that be in check.
Yet, the media has largely kept up with the hero/traitor narrative, with most concluding the latter. Much has been made of his self-extradition to Hong Kong (and now Russia) as traitorous and cowardly, when it’s really another form of information – it brings to attention the lengths this administration has gone to persecute whistle-blowers. They are not safe in America anymore, as they were when Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers. There have even been assertions that Glen Greenwald, Snowden’s (in)famous interviewer (parentheses are depending on the audience reading this), should face persecution himself for the act of journalism.
These signify a dramatic change in this country, not only in legislation, but in the mindset of the governed. We have moved from a representative democracy that rests on inalienable rights to secret courts, private subcontractors of the NSA compiling files of our personal digital correspondence and the “people” of the US calling for the head of the person who brought it to light. The big picture here is the loss of the American value system. It’s easy to promote freedom of the press and freedom of speech, due process, and search and seizure protections when you aren’t afraid and there is no direct threat, but it’s much harder when you are. But I think it’s the cornerstone of who we are supposed to be and if we lose that, we lose the identity that people died for, fought for, wrote, argued, and marched for. It’s the last shred of justified exceptionalism.
We can question why Snowden’s revelations have prompted outrage because he’s making us confront a truth we’d rather not consider: we like spying. We are okay with unwarranted phone tappings and the blurred lines of the 4th Amendment. Because it gives us the illusion that we are safer from the bad guys. That illusion is worth its weight in gold – or blood.