"We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remoreseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?" - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1943
In the wake of recent revelations about the National Security Agency's (NSA) program of mass surveillance directed at all American citizens, Edward Snowden, the alleged leaker of the documents proving the government's misdeeds, is being hailed as a hero by some, a traitor and criminal by others, while some simply don't know what to think.
Here's what I think: Snowden and the countless others like him who are daring to stand up to the government machine are acting as the moral conscience for a nation that has lost its way.
In our current governmental climate, where laws that run counter to the dictates of the Constitution are made in secret, passed without debate, and upheld by secret courts that operate behind closed doors, obeying one's conscience can well render you a criminal. Or as George Orwell put it, "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act."
As I discuss in my new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, some of history's most pivotal events came about because someone or some group chose to speak out against wrongdoing at great personal cost, even if it meant "breaking" the law. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian with a brilliant future before him and a refuge in the United States, opted instead to take part in a plot to overthrow Hitler and his despotic regime, believing that "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." For his "crime" against the Fuhrer, Bonhoeffer was put to death at Flossenburg Concentration Camp.
Examples of "lawbreakers" who follow their conscience in order to stand against tyranny abound in our own history, starting with the colonists who rose up in opposition to the British crown criminals. The engineers of the Underground Railroad and the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were also considered criminals of their day. Remember, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested upwards of 20 times, most often for violating Jim Crow laws which mandated racial segregation in public facilities.
While technically violating the laws of their time, these individuals chose to speak and act against injustice, whether in the form of tyranny, slavery, or segregation. Instead of keeping their heads down and going with the flow, they raised their voices and sacrificed their security, comfort, and even their lives.
This brings me back to Edward Snowden, who not only has provided a window into the inner workings of American government but is holding up a mirror to American society and reflecting back our inaction, our acceptance of corruption in high places, and our indifference about the steady erosions of our freedoms.
While Snowden's revelations about the NSA were dismaying, they were not surprising. Indeed, what I have found more disconcerting is the left-right response to Snowden's revelations, namely, the willingness by those on both sides to join forces in maintaining the governmental status quo, at all costs.
Talk about showing one's true colors. When politicians with such disparate views as Senators Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Lindsey Graham (R-NC) both give a full-throated defense of the Obama administration's undeniably egregious and invasive surveillance activities, it's obvious that we are no longer dealing with questions of freedom, or surveillance, or terrorism, but rather the defense of government power at all costs.
What this collusion reveals is that we currently live under a regime which has fully embraced the Nixonian mantra of "If the president does it, it's not illegal." The system of checks and balances, which is supposed to protect Americans from government overreach like the NSA spying program, is obviously not working.
Even President Obama, the former constitutional law professor, understands this, albeit in a perverse, backwards sort of way. In a recent speech in San Jose, Obama declared: "If people can't trust not only the executive branch but also don't trust Congress, and don't trust federal judges, to make sure that we're abiding by the Constitution with due process and rule of law, then we're going to have some problems here." However, when all branches of government are condoning clearly unconstitutional activities by the government against the citizenry, that's a problem.
Moreover, there is no room for trust in the relationship between the government and its citizens. Remember it was James Madison who warned that "All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree." Thomas Jefferson's solution was simple: "bind them down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution."
As for the claim that the government is protecting us from further acts of terrorism by systematically violating our civil liberties, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic effectively exorcised that particular demon when he pointed out that the likelihood of dying in a terrorist attack is astronomically low, lower than the chances of dying in a car wreck or being hit by lightning.
Thus, the question we should be asking is not whether Edward Snowden is a criminal but why the rest of us aren't criminals as well? What are you doing to push back against the excesses of government, to reclaim our freedoms, and to live up to the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution? What are you doing to stop the emerging American police state?