Saturday, June 22, 2013

Is Snowden committing an act of civil disobedience?

There are those who are trying to cast Edward Snowden's actions as civil disobedience. I suspect that this argument will be intensified now that he has been charged under the Espionage Act by the DOJ. There is some acceptance among his supporters that he has broken the law. But they want to claim the mantle of it being an "unjust law" that requires civil disobedience.

I'm sure there are legal cases to be made on both sides of this claim. But the fact that Snowden fled to Hong Kong to avoid the consequences of his law breaking - more than anything else - disqualifies him from claiming that mantle.

Take a look at how the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. described his understanding of civil disobedience after careful study in his Letter from Birmingham Jail (the title of which should be a give-away).
One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
There are many things that can be said about Snowden's actions. But its clear that they cannot be put in the company of those who actually practiced civil disobedience.


  1. There is a difference between being a whistleblower and a criminal leaker and this man is nothing more than a traitor.

  2. Well he's certainly been disobedient. But I think the key word in King's letter is "lovingly" which implies that the civil nature of the disobedience has to derive from some patriotic love of community and country, and not just martyrdom in the face of the state's legal/security apparatuses. Mercenaries and anti-statists need not apply.

    It's dubious that Snowden has any patriotic affection for the United States. His implicit rationale for being a source of information for those newspapers was that he had no respect for the individuals he came across during his time in the business as compared to what he believes (or is characterizing) is the dark potential of their capabilities. Maybe he views himself as saving America from itself, or maybe he believes he can hardly be said to have betrayed that which failed to earn his loyalty, I don't know.

    I personally fail to thoroughly understand his motivations. I don't know what to make of the claims that "more is coming." But it's clear he's become a magic mirror that reflects back the answer of whether an observer respects and cherishes the American state or whether one is comfortable seeing it humiliated and exposed.

  3. I am with Anon on this. No idea what the guy's motives were or are. But not looking good (too many cold war vibes) when you head to Moscow. As others have pointed out, Ellsberg stayed in country and even went to trial under the espionage act - having the charges dismissed only because of the government's gross misconduct (breaking into his office, wiretapping). Snowdon always had that choice - but did not take it. Now, more than ever, he becomes the story, rather than what the NSA has been doing, whether legal, gray or clearly illegal. And that is the shame of all of this - the circus instead of the analysis and reflection.

  4. No loving motives there - the guy was on a gigantic ego trip. And now that China has essentially handed him over to the Russians, he is nothing but a pawn in a game that is WAY bigger than he is. Good luck with that.

    1. Cue Margaret Mead quote, as misappropriated by libertarian acolytes who place themselves at the center of their own movie. Dum-dum-da-dum ... The heroine is tied to the railroad tracks, the hostile cavalry is charging from both sides, and the intrepid hero is tiptoeing along the top of the train, ready to overpower the engine driver and single-handedly save the girl. Tune in next week for more, and every week till the ratings start to shrink.


The Coming Tyranny of Six Supreme Court Justices

Our democracy is hanging on by a thread and nothing captures that better than the fact that the party that lost the popular vote in seven of...