Edward Snowden is a white adult who had access to government secrets and was willing to be exiled and risk prosecution to reveal them.
Trayvon Martin was a black minor who didn't choose to get killed and certainly cannot flee to a safe haven now.
Despite these differences, a common thread links these two Americans. They are both victims of a national approach to public safety that's driven by fear.
In recent decades, policymakers have become so committed to constraining, supervising and punishing Americans in the name of security they've built the
world's largest system of surveillance and punishment. And now those systems are engulfing the likes of Snowden and Martin.
Consider just how large and invasive our criminal justice apparatus has become. On the surveillance side, we all know by now of the
millions upon millions of Americans
being monitored in the name of fighting anti-American crime. Snowden's leaks have shown that this system is more vast than we ever knew before. Yet even
before Snowden's leaks, we knew the National Security Agency was intercepting
1.7 billion electronic communications
per day. We knew in the Bush-era that Americans were being wiretapped without warrants -- and that telecom companies would be immune from prosecution for participating in that
program. And anyone paying attention knew the fear generated by 9/11 made it politically difficult, if not impossible, to reverse the growing surveillance
The fear that gives the government carte blanche on civil liberties is not unlike the fear that leads whites to reflexively see African-Americans as a
threat. Author Michelle Alexander has dubbed this
fear "the Zimmerman mindset," which long pre-dates George Zimmerman himself and "views black boys and men in particular as a problem to be dealt with,
managed and controlled. This mindset has fueled a brutal war on drugs, a get-tough movement and a prison-building boom unprecedented in world history."
Richard Nixon fed this mindset during his 1968 presidential campaign, just as the civil rights movement was ending and politicians needed coded ways to
exploit white racial resentments. He ran a TV ad showing an elderly white woman
walking alone in the dark in an urban area. As she nervously puts one foot in front of the other, a narrator recites statistics about rising crime and
ominously intones, "Freedom from fear is a basic right of every American; we must restore it." The kicker is the slogan at the end of the ad: "This time,
vote as if your whole world depended on it." For many white Americans, it must have felt that way as privileges disappeared. Politicians like Nixon
expertly tapped into that anxiety.
When President Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1972, this fear became manifest in public policy. And we have since built quite a prison system. Today, the
United States has 2.2 million prisoners. That's more than
any other country both in absolute number and per capita, exceeding the likes of Russia, Cuba and Rwanda. And that's counting only the Americans currently
behind bars. If we count everyone who's under correctional supervision via parole or probation, we've got seven million people in the system. Count everyone with a criminal record -- many of whom cannot
get a job or housing as a result of their past -- and we're up to 65 million.
About half of the people incarcerated in the United States are in for nonviolent offenses.
Meanwhile, racial bias haunts the justice system. Blacks and whites use and sell drugs at roughly the same rate. Yet blacks are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned for a drug offense. For offenses overall,
black men receive sentences that are, on average, 20 percent longer than white men who are found
guilty of the same crimes.
In a country where racial fear has so thoroughly permeated our approach to crime, is it any wonder George Zimmerman was shaken at the sight of a young
black guy wearing a hoodie?
And in a country where fear of terrorism is so prevalent, is it any wonder Edward Snowden would likely spend decades in prison if he returns to the United
Snowden fled because Americans fear terrorism. Martin died because Americans fear blacks. And ultimately, the consequences of these fears touch us all.
This piece is cross-posted from The Hill.