Now that the U.S. government has charged NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden with espionage and theft of government property, the NSA's spying activities will remain in the news for a while. Which is good, since public evaluation of our government's policies is critical to the integrity of our democracy.
Ironically, this is also what makes it essential for Snowden to face trial.
He is a hero in that he has exposed a major initiative by the NSA to spy on American citizens, which violates our most cherished principles of privacy and of not being 'monitored' by the authorities without real cause and due process. If our basic means of communication -- emails, phone calls, texts -- are all subject to eavesdropping by our government, we risk becoming an Orwellian nightmare. Snowden's actions, questionable or not, were the catalyst that brought this issue to the fore and for that we should thank him.
However, that does not mean that he should not have to answer for his actions. If that sounds incongruous to you, it is not. Take for example the father of a teenage girl who is raped and killed. Let's also assume that the rapist/killer is freed by a court of law due to a legal technicality. In that circumstance, would anyone fault the father for taking the law into his own hands and delivering vigilante justice to the killer? Very likely not, and there is an argument to be made that the law and justice are not the same thing at all.
And yet despite our sympathy for the father, we support a legal system that views the father's actions as criminal. Extenuating circumstances or a temporary insanity defense might secure the man an acquittal but he must still be tried for his crime. The reason for this is that our system of law only works if it treats all defendants equally and subjects them to the same process, regardless of how 'just' a defendant's actions were.
It is up to a judge or jury to decide guilt or innocence, not us. Without that, our laws would become meaningless and impossible to enforce since everyone can have their own high-minded motivations for doing whatever they do.
Snowden is currently in Hong Kong and will likely resist extradition. I think that is a mistake. It is fine for the public to ask for clemency and for the courts to acquit him despite what he did, but he must first respect our system of law and return for trial -- or he will be making a mockery of the very democratic principles that he claims he was trying to protect.
Real heroes don't run. They do what they believe is right, then boldly face the music so that we are forced to confront our own sense of fairness and uphold our own values.
SANJAY SANGHOEE is a political and business commentator. He is a banker, has an MBA from Columbia Business School, and is the author of "Killing Wall Street". For more information, please visit www.killingwallstreet.com