Edward Snowden on Walden Pond

Socrates was executed in 399BC for breaking Athenian law.  He had a chance to go into exile, but chose death out of respect for the sanctity of Law – even if particular laws or their implementation had been found wanting.

Heraclitus had already warned us to protect our laws as if they were our city-walls.

Henry David Thoreau, following in the footsteps of Socrates, challenged what he regarded as an unjust law by refusing to pay taxes earmarked for a war.  Yet, he still submitted himself to the consequences of his civil disobedience and spent his night in jail.

Thoreau resisted the particular unjust law, but submitted himself for punishment for the sake of Law itself.

TEdward Snowdenhe integrity of Law itself must be maintained, he held, though he remains free to resist and challenge particular unjust laws.

Edward Snowden may be in a similar circumstance as Socrates and Thoreau.

If we remain for the moment within the parameters laid out by Thoreau, it is clear that for the sake of Law itself, Snowden should surrender himself to the law enforcement agencies of the United States government.

If his mission is accomplished, as he himself has declared it to be from exile, then there is no reason for him not to return to the United States for trial and begin the arguments which will become the basis for any possible remedy through legislation.

Perhaps he will be granted clemency.

However, two objections to this scenario of surrender emerge upon greater critical reflection.

On the one hand, it is not clear if his mission is accomplished – or can be accomplished.  Indeed, it has been estimated that only three or four per cent of the leaked documents have so far been revealed.

In the wake of what is becoming another layer of cover-up by the Guardian and NYT, there needs to be a more thorough revelation of this vital information in order to build sufficient pressure for real, substantive change in legislation and practice in the fields of privacy, censorship, and mass surveillance.

Indeed, considering Snowden’s information only reflects two months of data, it is in fact necessary to initiate a complete investigation of all activities and all data.  NSA offices must be invaded, and arrests made.

On the other hand, it is not clear if Snowden is guilty at all.  Indeed, there are arguments that his oath to protect the Constitution of the United States was fulfilled by his leaking of classified documents, that he falls into the special protected category of whistleblower.

In this case, Snowden’s act is not that of civil disobedience, since he was perhaps the only one fulfilling the law.  Instead, his act is one of disobedience to a regime, not of law, but of power, to a hegemony of corruption which has arisen around the National Security Act of 1947.

In this light, perhaps it is not to Waldon Pond, but to the Odyssey we should refer – that the household has become overrun by suitors, that the state is one of corruption.

It is shocking – and unacceptable – that an agency created by the representatives of the people has become usurped, ungovernable – that it is even conceivable, much less a routine cliche, that Snowden’s life is in danger, that media personnel have actually called for his assassination.

We have only just noticed that we are in a cage, like a mouse which first runs into the glass.  But, we only know that there is a cage – we know very little about the configuration of this cage, who controls it, and whether or not it can be changed, transformed according to the will of the democratic electorate.

Whether Snowden is enacting civil disobedience, or is a whistleblower, the act has only just begun.  Not only must the remaining information be released to the public, but there must also be the cultivation of a culture which will protect and encourage the actions of future Snowdens.

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Further Reading

Otis Pike is dead… No one noticed… no one cares…

The Trial of Socrates – Resources

On Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

On Walden Pond by Henry David Thoreau

The Politics of the Imperfect: Building a Different World

Go to: The Ends of the British State in Planet Magazine: The Welsh Internationalist

Go to: “They Destroy, We Create: The Anti-Austerity UK Alliance” in Planet Magazine: The Welsh Internationalist

Go to: Athens Without Slavery: The Battle For Europe – Syriza and the New European Left

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2 Comments

  1. March 9, 2014 at 4:42 am

    One important thing to remember is that Thoreau never faced serious jail time for his civil disobedience — he was in jail one night. There’s a tremendous difference between that and being jailed for decades.

    Snowden should do whatever he needs to do to stay out of the clutches of the authoritarians running the U.S. government.

    As for civil disobedience (or anything else) being a “duty,” it’s well to remember that “duty” consists of doing what other people want you to do because they want you to do it.

    • James Luchte said,

      March 10, 2014 at 8:12 am

      Of course, and I say as much in the rest of the essay. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.


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