Edward Snowden, exiled from his homeland and seeking asylum in Russia, calls himself a patriot. He says he did what he did in an attempt to help his country. 57% of people 18-29 years old said that Snowden served the public’s interest in revealing the extent of NSA surveillance, people over the age of 65 disagree.
When is a patriot not a patriot? And what, for that matter, is a patriot? Is it unpatriotic to ask questions of the government? Is it unpatriotic to exert your right to the First Amendment?
Free-speech has come under the hammer a lot lately. By lately, I mean since 1971, when Daniel Elsberg and The Pentagon Papers challenged the Nixon administration’s attempt to censor the media. Elsberg is considered a whistleblower and a hero, because he faced trial, he didn’t go into exile.
Manning said she did it because she was growing increasingly depressed at how the US government was handling foreign policy and the role of the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition to secretive government documents, Manning supplied Wikileaks with video footage of an Apache helicopter strike in Iraq in 2007 in the hopes that it would spark a debate amongst American civilians about the role of the military and also highlight the “delightful bloodlust of pilots.” But is she, like Elsberg, a patriot?
In Snowden’s case, he felt it was his duty to reveal the extent of NSA surveillance and that, ““Sometimes to do the right thing, you have to break a law.” Unlike Manning and Elsberg, Snowden hit the high road and said he knows that if he comes back to America he would be walking into a jail cell.
To put all this into perspective, Elsberg himself says that in the 43 years since the Pentagon Papers leaks, America has changed. Elsberg states in an article he wrote in the Washington Post that he and his wife went underground for 13 days.
“My purpose (quite like Snowden’s in flying to Hong Kong) was to elude surveillance while I was arranging — with the crucial help of a number of others, still unknown to the FBI — to distribute the Pentagon Papers sequentially to 17 other newspapers,” Elsberg said.
The real difference between the US today and the US of 1971 according to Elsberg is that he was free to talk to the media, at public rallies and lectures during his two years of indictment. The country was at war, and he being an opponent of the Vietnam War states that he was, “part of a movement against an ongoing war. Helping to end that war was my preeminent concern.”
So is Snowden a patriot? According to Elsberg he is. “I hope Snowden’s revelations will spark a movement to rescue our democracy, but he could not be part of that movement had he stayed here. There is zero chance that he would be allowed out on bail if he returned now and close to no chance that, had he not left the country, he would have been granted bail. Instead, he would be in a prison cell like Bradley Manning, incommunicado.”
In an interview on NPR Elsberg said he too expected to be placed in prison during the Pentagon Papers leaks in 1971. So why wasn’t he? America was a very different country in 1971. Elsberg’s case was declared a mistrial.
In a statement that is reminiscent of Orwell’s Animal Farm, Elsberg says, “secrecy corrupts, just as power corrupts.” He says that what Manning and Snowden have done is to allow the US public to rescue itself from the United Statsi of America whereby the executive branch and intelligence agencies retains all practical powers of the country.
So when is a patriot not a patriot? According to Elsberg it is when people stop asking questions and behave like sheep.
Maybe it is our own definition of patriotism that has changed. After all, we have experienced a huge paradigm shift in what patriots do. Should patriots question ruling powers or should they just accept that it is what it is and get on with life, and let us do the same?
Whether we adhere to the definition of patriot as watchdog or patriot as sheep reveals whether or not we consider Edward Snowden to be a patriot. The choice is yours.