Edward Snowden has Americans flummoxed. How do you get your head around the plight of this nondescript 30-year-old trapped (i.e., cowering like a cornered rat) in a Moscow airport? Anyone who has endured the misery of a canceled flight can sympathize.
Even the most hard-nosed among us has to be asking inwardly, if not aloud: How is our young traitor getting on? Have the Russians provided comfortable seating, perhaps even a cot? Did he pack a suitcase before taking flight from Hong Kong in hopes that the plane would deliver him safely to somewhere — if not to Russia, then into the open arms of his partner in crime, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, now languishing in the Ecuadorean embassy in London? They say misery loves company. Who isn’t at some level quietly rooting for Snowden to have at least that consolation?
Has anyone thought to offer a toothbrush?
Europeans, by contrast, are anything but flummoxed. Last week’s revelation that we bugged allies’ embassies in Washington has them whipped into a righteous froth. Not since former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was conned into collaborating with us in that other catastrophic overreach in the name of national security, the invasion of Iraq, have our friends abroad been so incensed at U.S. double talk — or so mystified by us, the somnolent-seeming American electorate.
Are we still numb from the 9/11 attacks? Is it terror of terror that has us behaving as if the fate of a food-show host mattered more than that of an NSA whistleblower whose secrets are so threatening to our government that it has resorted to paying off at least one foreign nation inclined to give the leaker safe harbor?
Germany’s conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel grew up in East Germany and understands the consequences of hypersurveillance. She remembers how the Stasi terrorized the citizenry, going so far as to bottle their scents in order to entrap them if need be at some future date. Back then devices far more conducive to such entrapment, such as personal cellphones and the Internet, didn’t exist.
The White House, which sanctioned the system that Snowden’s leaks revealed, has yet to respond in any substantive way to questions surrounding surveillance, instead deploying what I’ve come to think of as the scold offensive. The tone would be appropriate if we were at risk of the kind of calamity threatened by Soviet shipments of nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962. But, as Merkel said last week, this is not the Cold War. The plots we’re foiling involve pressure cookers and pipe bombs. Of course a terrorist could unleash a man-eating virus, or contaminate New York City’s water supply — but then, so could anyone, including the sort of deranged individual who murdered all those children in Newtown. And besides, is the most draconian what-if scenario the one that should be shaping our society?
It was — as anyone would know who’d followed the Senate hearings instead of “American Idol” in 2002 — an intelligence failure and not a shortage of surveillance data that made us vulnerable to the 9/11 attacks. Chalk it up to human error — i.e., the sort of thing that causes planes to crash from time to time. So, do we put a halt to air travel?
We’ve been betrayed, say the president, the Pentagon and the CIA. So far only two U.S. senators have raised much in the way of protest, and this in response to Obama’s description of deliberate lies in NSA testimony before Congress as mere “inaccuracies.” Tsk, tsk.
My own casual eavesdropping on discussions around this topic reveal a sharp divide between older and younger Americans, the oldsters mildly defensive on the president’s behalf and those under 30 vehement that Snowden’s stand on privacy is courageous and just. Polls find the same thing, which raises the question: If young people are so concerned about privacy, how come they post party pictures on Facebook?
Maybe that’s just it — they’re already at risk and they know it. The evidence against them is out there, should any entity choose to use it, for whatever reason. Because of their embrace of social media, the young understand its power and that equally powerful protections must exist to ensure that their personal data doesn’t become a weapon of the state, a corporation or any other entity with repressive or malicious intent.
In a free society, those powerful protections are also in the form of information. Snowden’s youthful supporters aren’t willing to give up their Facebook accounts for fear of repercussions down the road. They believe they have a right to know, at the very least, that they’re being watched.
Bonnie Blodgett is a writer in St. Paul.