Edward Snowden’s Moral Courage
Posted on Feb 23, 2014
By Chris Hedges
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Last Thursday Chris Hedges opened a team debate at the Oxford Union at Oxford University with this speech arguing in favor of the proposition “This house would call Edward Snowden a hero.” The others on the Hedges team, which won the debate by an audience vote of 212 to 171, were William E. Binney, a former National Security Agency official and a whistle-blower; Chris Huhne, a former member of the British Parliament; and Annie Machon, a former intelligence officer for the United Kingdom. The opposing team was made up of Philip J. Crowley, a former U.S. State Department officer; Stewart A. Baker, a former chief counsel for the National Security Agency; Jeffrey Toobin, an American television and print commentator; and Oxford student Charles Vaughn.
I have been to war. I have seen physical courage. But this kind of courage is not moral courage. Very few of even the bravest warriors have moral courage. For moral courage means to defy the crowd, to stand up as a solitary individual, to shun the intoxicating embrace of comradeship, to be disobedient to authority, even at the risk of your life, for a higher principle. And with moral courage comes persecution.
The American Army pilot Hugh Thompson had moral courage. He landed his helicopter between a platoon of U.S. soldiers and 10 terrified Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai massacre. He ordered his gunner to fire his M60 machine gun on the advancing U.S. soldiers if they began to shoot the villagers. And for this act of moral courage, Thompson, like Snowden, was hounded and reviled. Moral courage always looks like this. It is always defined by the state as treason—the Army attempted to cover up the massacre and court-martial Thompson. It is the courage to act and to speak the truth. Thompson had it. Daniel Ellsberg had it. Martin Luther King had it. What those in authority once said about them they say today about Snowden.
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So let me speak to you about those drunk with the power to sweep up all your email correspondence, your tweets, your Web searches, your phone records, your file transfers, your live chats, your financial data, your medical data, your criminal and civil court records and your movements, those who are awash in billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars, those who have banks of sophisticated computer systems, along with biosensors, scanners, face recognition technologies and miniature drones, those who have obliterated your anonymity, your privacy and, yes, your liberty.
There is no free press without the ability of the reporters to protect the confidentiality of those who have the moral courage to make public the abuse of power. Those few individuals inside government who dared to speak out about the system of mass surveillance have been charged as spies or hounded into exile. An omnipresent surveillance state—and I covered the East German Stasi state—creates a climate of paranoia and fear. It makes democratic dissent impossible. Any state that has the ability to inflict full-spectrum dominance on its citizens is not a free state. It does not matter if it does not use this capacity today; it will use it, history has shown, should it feel threatened or seek greater control. The goal of wholesale surveillance, as Hannah Arendt wrote, is not, in the end, to discover crimes, “but to be on hand when the government decides to arrest a certain category of the population.” The relationship between those who are constantly watched and tracked and those who watch and track them is the relationship between masters and slaves.
Those who wield this unchecked power become delusional. Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, hired a Hollywood set designer to turn his command center at Fort Meade into a replica of the bridge of the starship Enterprise so he could sit in the captain’s chair and pretend he was Jean-Luc Picard. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, had the audacity to lie under oath to Congress. This spectacle was a rare glimpse into the absurdist theater that now characterizes American political life. A congressional oversight committee holds public hearings. It is lied to. It knows it is being lied to. The person who lies knows the committee members know he is lying. And the committee, to protect their security clearances, says and does nothing.
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