Edward Snowden may be a hero. He may be a traitor. At this point, he may or may not be an American. In any case, he’s a prophet.
A prophet reminds us of what we’ve conveniently forgotten, what we have to forget to live with ourselves.
We don’t like prophets. They hold up mirrors, call us to account, face us with truth that requires we change course or work harder at denial.
True prophets appeal (usually at cost or risk to themselves) to idealistic principles that their societies have subordinated to more practical concerns and stopped talking about because conversation about impractical principles is just uncomfortable.
What’s most annoying and compelling about Snowden is not his crime or his motives. It’s the light he shines on the bargain we’ve struck around privacy and the government.
Since 9-11 (and the Boston bombings), we’ve decided we prefer security to privacy. We’ve accepted snooping in principle. Snowden’s pulled back the curtain to show us what it looks like in practice.
What our government has acknowledged is already more pervasive and intrusive than most of us imagined. Whether Snowden ultimately delivers electronic evidence to support his most unsettling claims, we’ve had to entertain possibilities we’re eager to forget.
Warrantless wiretapping after 9-11 appalled us. Then we got used to it. Then we elected a new president. We’d like to believe that settled it. Turns out, it didn’t.
Snowden’s story calls on us to answer this question: How are we as citizens holding our government accountable? What safeguards will we insist contain an increasingly sophisticated surveillance system that powerful people will be tempted to abuse?
Because this question is our responsibility. And unless we ask it, we can’t expect it to stay on the table.
And I’d rather think about something else.
Thanks, Edward Snowden. Thanks a lot.