Last night at the Democratic presidential debate, leftist favorite Bernie Sanders clarified his feelings about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
"I think Snowden played a very important role in educating the American public ... he did break the law, and I think there should be a penalty to that," Sanders said. He went on to say that the role Snowden played in educating the public about violations of their civil liberties should be considered before he is sentenced, and that as president he would "absolutely" end the NSA spying programs in question.
To read between the lines: Bernie thinks Edward Snowden did the right thing, but hey, laws are laws. If elected, though, it sounds like he'll make sure Snowden gets a really nice jail cell.
Bernie was quick to point out that what Snowden did was illegal, and that he should face the consequences for it. Instead of calling for stronger legal protections for whistleblowers, or offering to pardon Snowden if elected, he called for the former NSA contractor to come home and face trial in a country with a dodgy record of imprisoning and prosecuting whistleblowers, dissidents, activists and journalists.
But notably absent from his law abiding approach was a call for criminal charges against NSA officials or his colleagues in Congress who repeatedly authorized the illegal mass surveillance programs he claims he would end as president. Programs that we would still know nothing about without Edward Snowden's "illegal" actions, which Bernie thinks he should face jail time for.
Where is Bernie's call for criminal sanctions against the web companies that betrayed their users' trust, violated their own privacy policies, and enabled the most sweeping violation of the Fourth Amendment in history?
Where is his apology to the rest of the world for the United States' decades of human rights abuses, economic espionage, and illegal torture programs?
I've learned over the years to no longer be shocked by politicians' ability to speak out of both sides of their mouths, but I can't help feeling that this quote from Sanders underscores a huge flaw in his thinking and the thinking of his supporters.
Sanders has based his campaign on the premise that the United States' political and economic systems are so flawed that we need a "revolution," but when a thorny question like Snowden comes up it becomes clear that what he's really calling for is a changing of the guard.
Civil disobedience, the idea that we have a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws, should not be a foreign concept to a longtime activist like Sanders. As of right now, there is no Federal law that protects me from being fired from my job or denied housing as a transgender person. Not terribly long ago child labor was perfectly legal while women were denied the right to vote.
As those who #FeelTheBern were quick to point out (and then point out again, and again, and again) after Sanders was brilliantly trolled by Black Lives Matter protesters, Bernie marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in 1963. He was even arrested for protesting school segregation.
So when did Bernie become such a stickler for law and order over justice and freedom? Probably when he decided he wanted to be president of the "Free World."
As someone who cares deeply about economic injustice and many of the other things that Sanders has made cornerstones of his campaign, I want to like him. I want to feel the same hope and inspiration that his starry-eyed supporters are spreading across social media.
But when I look at the major political progress we've made in recent years, it hasn't come from elected officials, no matter how well spoken. It's come primarily from brave, dedicated, people and movements, many of whom broke the law to achieve their goals. Wikileaks, protesters in Ferguson, the Arab Spring, and yes, whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
I agree with Bernie Sanders that mass surveillance programs are dangerous. But what's more dangerous is the type of thinking behind them. Thinking that says that laws, rules, and following authority matter more than what's right and wrong. It's an ideology that breeds conformity and strangles democracy.
Until Bernie's revolution recognizes and embraces the real struggle we have between us and a free and just society, and honors those who have taken risks to bring us closer to that day, I think I'll be writing in Edward Snowden on election day.