“I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, 1963
I grew up in an era when people who broke unjust laws because of their principles and whistleblowers who risked their lives and freedom to bring the public's attention to wrongs that the government was committing were unquestioned heroes. I admired them unreservedly and wanted to do everything I could to support them.
There is one big difference between those people - people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Daniel Ellsberg - and the current crop of so-called whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Those principled people of the 1960s and 1970s acknowledged that they were breaking laws, claimed that the laws themselves were unjust, and chose to take any punishment which society meted out in order to call attention to injustice and to try to get the laws overturned. Snowden and Assange and people like them blow their whistles and run away and hide.
I find it extremely ironic to consider the places that Snowden has chosen to run to. First to China, now (apparently) to Russia and then (again apparently) on to either Cuba, Ecuador, or Venezuela. None of those countries is exactly known for its openness or championing of human rights. I wonder if he will try to "blow the whistle" on the injustices in his new chosen country, whichever it may be. If so, I wonder where he will run for sanctuary afterwards - or if he will be able to run afterwards.
Actually, I think the editorial page editor of The New York Times got it just about right in his blog post about Snowden today, the bottom line of which is that Snowden diminishes himself and his supposed cause by running away. If he had chosen to stand trial, I would have no hesitation in calling him a hero whether or not I agree with all that he has done - and, frankly, I have serious questions about that, especially now that he has given an interview saying that he went into the job specifically to gather evidence of NSA surveillance. In other words, to be a spy.
And what information has he now turned over to China or Russia? In order to obtain the job, he took an oath, which evidently he knew he was going to break when he took it. I admit that I may be prejudiced since I, too, was a government employee for many years, and I took an oath which I considered binding. But, again, I could perhaps respect his decision if I didn't consider him such a coward, and, frankly, such a hypocrite for running from the United States to the decidedly undemocratic and totalitarian society of China, Russia, Cuba, etc., any one of which is happy to collaborate in embarrassing Snowden's native country.
So, no, I can't consider him alongside Martin Luther King or Daniel Ellsberg or any of the other heroes of my youth. Or even on the same level as someone like Bradley Manning who is currently standing trial for revealing classified information. Moreover, I am sick of seeing his face peering out at me every time I open a news site on the Internet. I'll be happy when he becomes yesterday's news and can settle down to his new life of freedom in Ecuador or Venezuela. No doubt he will be hailed as a hero there.
UPDATE: Alex Seitz-Wald of Salon.com has more on the hypocrisy of choosing Ecuador as sanctuary as Assange has done, and as Snowden also seems to be considering.