I’ve hestitated to write about Edward Snowden, the former technical contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) who leaked details of top-secret mass surveillance programs to the press. People see him as either a hero or a traitor, but I’ve been conflicted.
I used to fear everything and wanted the government to do everything possible to keep me safe, even if it meant giving up some liberty. I eventually got past the fear and now believe we must live life to the fullest, even if it means we’re not always safe. That part of me distrusts government and considers Snowden a hero for exposing how much spying the NSA does on its own citizens.
I also write about information security for a living and have many friends in government. I’ve seen the risks they take to secure us from terrorists and online attackers and how they’ve resisted the urge to talk about what they see because they believe it would damage the greater good. Snowden used to work among them and, by doing what he did, betrayed them. That part of me thinks Snowden is a traitor. His flight from the authorities only solidified that feeling.
Yesterday I decided to take a position one way or the other. I invited friends on Facebook and Twitter to weigh in, and found that half of those who responded think he’s a hero and the other half think he’s a traitor.
But the comments made me realize that by focusing on Snowden and the NSA, we’re distracting ourselves from bigger truths.
The important thing is what this story says about many of us Americans:
- How we get obsessed with hero worship without considering all the supposed hero’s motives. Those of use who mistrust government are quick to raise people like Snowden on a pedestal, viewing him as a brave soul who exposed government’s evil side. But when you flee and pass on government secrets to countries like Russia and China, countries far more challenged in the freedom department than the U.S., are you really heroic?
- How we crave scapegoats because it’s easier to scowl at a scapegoat than consider how we allowed the government to spiral out of control. After 9/11, we were so scared that we willingly allowed the government to enact overreaching laws like the PATRIOT Act. We’ve been paying for it ever since.
- How we miss the forest for the trees. The larger lesson is that we could change things if we were willing to do the work.
We need to stop the blame game and look at what we must do as Americans to change things for the better.
We must be willing to hold political leaders accountable and stop reelecting the very politicians who vote to authorize more and more government control.
We must own up to the fact that we allowed the government to head down this path. If we’re outraged about the end result, we have to reexamine how much safety we’re willing to give up in the name of liberty and push the government in whatever direction we set. Then we have to keep our eyes on the road instead of falling asleep at the wheel.
I admit all that is easier said than done. Democracy is a messy thing. Good people have a bitch of a time reaching consensus. We’re all conflicted and challenged by personal demons every day, and it can be hard to overcome those things to give better government the effort necessary. We’re all busy with family and work, which usually leaves little time for anything else.
Change is hard. But if we want it that badly, we have to work for it.