THE BLOG
07/16/2013 11:10 am ET Updated Sep 15, 2013

Hero, Traitor, Self-Saboteur: Edward Snowden and the State of 21 st Century Democracy

It's been about a month since Edward Snowden leaked secret NSA surveillance programs to the press, igniting international controversy over what many perceive to be government overreach and disregard of privacy. There is no consensus as to how Edward Snowden should be characterized. He has been called a whistleblower and a hero by some, and a traitor by others. Senator Rand Paul initially applauded the leaks, while others, like Secretary of State John Kerry and Speaker John Boehner, deemed his actions treasonous. In a sense, both arguments are right: Snowden started as a whistleblower, and quickly became a traitor. He didn't die a hero, so he lived long enough to see himself become an American villain.

Snowden's initial intentions were honorable. A country that regards democracy as a human right had violated the civil liberties of its own citizens without public knowledge or consent. A vast surveillance program had capture data on millions of Americans who had not been suspected of any wrongdoing. The extent of government spying surprised even the most paranoid of Americans, and led to calls for more transparency. The very essence of 21st century democracy was called into question: is a surveillance state a necessary reality of modern governance?

But then the conversation changed. In his desperate search for asylum, Snowden damaged American foreign policy, and even Americans concerned about their privacy began to think of him as a traitor. For example, Snowden maintained that the U.S. had conducted spying operations against Chinese universities and researchers, and not merely the Chinese government. By unveiling spying on Americans, he shed light on what he perceived as an illegal and intrusive covert program; by unveiling tools of American foreign policy, he selfishly tried to curry favor with foreign governments at the expense of his own. At a time when the United States was trying to curb China's violation of American patents, China gained a grievance against the United States and reduced its moral bargaining leverage. Snowden did not take into account China's dismal human rights record with regard to free speech, free association, and religious observance. America, for all its problems, is not an authoritarian one-party dictatorship with forced abortions or jailed political dissidents, and it was highly detrimental to limit the United States' ability to maneuver with regards to the rising Asian superpower. Snowden also damaged the United States' credibility in engaging Russia's government, which has used the Snowden spectacle to cast doubt on American criticisms of Russia's human rights record. It is not surprising that Snowden's plight has attracted the sympathy of Venezuela, a country strongly opposed to U.S. foreign policy.

To be fair, Snowden's daring international escapades have kept important civil liberties issues in the news, ensuring the media gives the issue airtime despite other important recent developments, like the birth of Kimye's daughter North West and the racist ramblings of a Food Network chef. Though many Americans polled seem to accept the NSA's privacy intrusions for the sake of security, Snowden's leaks have ignited an important debate about what 21st century liberal democracy looks like, in an age of terror threats and ever more ubiquitous technology. This is a conversation all Americans should be willing to have, including the spying program's most ardent supporters. Snowden's evasion of American authorities has damaged his cause, and the cause of organizations like the ACLU that advocate for civil liberty protection. Had Snowden stayed in the country and faced the music, he would have exposed a possibly unconstitutional covert program while maintaining the sympathy of much of the American people. Instead, he has made himself a pariah, and become a spectacle unto himself.

Though it is tempting to focus on the Where's Waldo?-like international Snowden saga, civil libertarians must redraw attention to the central issue: what does 21st century democracy look like? How can we keep our country safe while keeping our leaders accountable in a democratic framework? If we are to give up so much privacy for the sake of security, we should decide the extent of this trade-off democratically, not through a bureaucracy operating in the shadows. It's time for a national conversation about 21st democracy, which we must bring to the fore in spite of Mr. Snowden's treacherous turn towards traitor status.