When I was in junior high school in Lincoln, Neb., and living on a nearby military base, there was, in the same school, a local kid -- a townie -- who had little use for the base kids. I didn't know why, it was just apparent from his habit of beating up on base kids while staying out of fights with his neighborhood buddies. Over a period of several weeks, I became the target of the townie's ire; simply put, he beat me up a few times. He was always accompanied by some of his pals, but they never put a finger on me; they just stood by and let the practiced bully do his thing, which was usually to throw a few blows to my stomach, and the occasional shot to my face or neck. Physically and constitutionally, I was not much of threat. Or so I believed.
The bully's choice of time and place to beat up on me was coincident with the imminent departure of the end-of-school-day base-bound school bus, so most of my fellow military brats were already queued up or on the bus, more anxious to go home than to get involved in a few seconds of fighting.
My dad eventually figured out what was going on and he gently pulled me into a conversation about standing up for myself, and not putting up with someone else's agenda. He'd never had a reason or an opportunity to teach me much about boxing -- we were a fairly peaceable family -- but he was not one to walk away from violence, either. Just using the palms of his hands he showed me how to quickly jab -- a relative term -- with all the strength I could muster in one shot. He had two pieces of advice for me during those lessons. The first one was simple: "If provoked to the point where you think you have no choice, hit first, hit fast, and hit hard."
That point came just days later, after school, as my friends were piling onto the home-bound bus. The townie was waiting for me with his buddies, and his taunts were clearly a preface to his blows. I couldn't think of anything else to do, so I hit first, fast, and hard -- just one blow as if the target was my dad's palm -- and he went down like a stone. I don't know who was more amazed by the physics of the whole thing -- me, the kid, or his pals. Nothing earthshaking came of the encounter, but the kid didn't pick on me again.
Jump forward fifty years to the row between the United States and Edward Snowden over four purloined laptops containing large amounts of sensitive intelligence data, data which Snowden has been carefully passing out to a few select journals. Each new revelation -- and I have no way of knowing the true value of the information, but I think we've all come to believe that it's pretty important stuff -- has been a body-blow to national security. Snowden taunted, then hit. Again and again. Junior high school aggression on a global level.
So how do we hit back, if, in fact that's what we want to do? Snowden refused to get within arm's length -- hiding in the corners of Hong Kong or the Moscow airport -- and all we could do was pace around the ring until Vladimir Putin decided to play surrogate bully for Snowden. Pushing Snowden out of the way -- installing him in some nondescript dacha in rural Russia -- Putin moved to seize the advantage he thinks he has inside those laptops.
Our opportunity to redress the recent grievance -- Snowden's duplicity -- was presented to us in a September summit in Moscow between President Obama and Putin. A crystallizing moment to stand up to the ultimate bully for whom the Cold War is still bubbling hot. Hitting first, fast, and hardest was obviously not a physical option here, though the image has immense visceral appeal. But showing up in the face of Putin's intransigence was a distinct possibility, one that might have sent a message from Obama to Snowden that the former wannabe NSA anti-hero is not nearly as safe as he's been told he is. If just for once something powerful would wipe that smugness off Snowden's face, I'd have paid for the fuel for Air Force One.
Cooler heads prevailed, though, and the president's decision to forgo the summit is thought to have done more damage to Putin than showing up. The political calculus was inescapable to the White House and the State Department: Given all that has transpired in recent months, the summit might have resulted in Putin's prancing about his home turf, taunting Obama not only with Snowden, but with Syria's Assad, Moscow's daily stream of human rights violations, and with Russia's ever-so-saccharin suggestion that it never really meant to punish gays at the upcoming Olympics.
So, Snowden wins a round by default, but there will ultimately be an accounting, which brings me to my father's second piece of advice all those years ago: "If you can, you choose the time and place." Mr. Snowden, Mr. Putin, if you thought the time was September and the place was Moscow, you were wrong.