A young, former C.I.A. technician has publicly stated that he was behind the recent revelations about the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs. According to a June 9 New York Times article, “he took the extraordinary step because ‘the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.’”
In a phrase, echoing whistle-blowers like Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning and harkening to Luther’s “Here I stand I can do no other,” Edward Snowden is quoted in the article as saying, “If you realize that that’s the world you helped create and it is going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation and extend the capabilities of this architecture of oppression, you realize that you might be willing to accept any risks and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is.”
Mr. Snowden claims he acted from conscience when he leaked to The Guardian and Washington Post how the NSA was collecting Americans phone data He seems willing to accept the consequences for his actions, not just giving up a $200,000 salary at the consulting firm Booz Allen and a house in Hawaii, but perhaps even spending the rest of his life in jail. There was never any question of his selling the information for profit, he stated in an interview/video; he also said that he was careful not to reveal information that he thought would put peoples’ lives in danger.
How do people reach a point that they radically change their behavior to act publicly out of conscience? In his famous 1958 psychobiography “Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History,” Erik Erikson tried to discover what drove Luther to stand up to the Church of Rome. We are certain that much will now be written to explain the “identity crisis” that Erikson coined for Luther to be at the center of explanations for Edward Snowden’s actions.
A Geneva asset manager recently confided to me that she was considering changing her career, not because she was in trouble for breaking the law, but because she was tired of feeling or made to feel unethical by association. “I am tired of people treating me like a criminal just because of my job,” she said. “I have done nothing wrong; my clients have done nothing wrong, but I feel I am being associated with an industry that has fallen into shame.” Her conscience was telling her to move on.
Are all acts of conscience to be rewarded? A famous case in recent history was the example of Fawn Hall, secretary to Lt. Colonel Oliver North and a notorious femme fatale. During her 1989 testimony in the Iran-Contra affair, Hall admitted to sneaking confidential papers out of the office and confessed to shredding illegally a large number of official documents. When asked to justify her actions, she replied in a phrase that may have become the mantra for all whistle-blowers; “Sometimes you have to go above the law.” Hall was granted immunity for her testimony. (Among certain of my generation, she is also, and perhaps more fondly, remembered for later marrying the former manager of the Doors.)
Is Snowden a hero or a villain? Certainly for the United States government and his employer Booz Allen, he is a villain, if not a traitor. For the Left and those who cherish free speech above security, he is a hero like Ellsberg, Manning and Julian Assange. In his calculations of the consequences for his actions, Snowden’s move to Hong Kong raises legal questions about extradition. For the moment, Snowden is staying in a luxury hotel far from the solitary prison confinement of Bradley Manning or Assange’s isolation in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
While commentators will analyze his motives and legal experts will study the extradition question, ethicists will ponder Snowden’s actions and think about what happens when inner voices overcome societal rules. Remember that Luther was one of the founders of the Reformation. Millions follow his teachings. His bust stands near the Wall of the Reformation in Geneva as a hero. Michael Oakeshott best captured the villain/hero aspects of Luther and helps us to understand the ethical complexity of Snowden’s actions as well as the actions of all those who choose to go “above the law”:
“One who understands himself to be a messenger of god, to be ‘illuminated’ from above, or to be the voice of destiny…is a character of a different sort; he has resigned the character of a human being and has contracted out of the conversation of mankind. He is either an angel or a lunatic.”