Friday, 30 May 2014

Shouldn't we all "man up"?

Secretary of State John Kerry responded to a recent televised interview of Edward Snowden, by attacking Snowden's moral character.  It was nice to see a public official acknowledge the depth and complexity of moral decision-making in their criticism rather than using simplified moral concepts such as "evil" or "wrong". In this case, Kerry explicitly called into question Snowden's honesty, loyalty, sense of justice, and bravery.  The last one hit a nerve in some quarters due to his calling on Snowden to "man up", but terminology is not what concerned me.  I am more concerned with the accuracy of his analysis... or should I say the extent of his analysis?  

Honesty.  I think it is undeniable that Snowden acted dishonestly, and he would admit this himself.  I mean for all intents and purposes he did.  He worked in an intelligence agency which by its very nature depends on dishonesty. If he was in fact a spy, then he was explicitly trained in duplicity.  The very concept of intelligence agencies (aka spy agencies) is that honesty as a virtue can be sacrificed for other goals.  In a sense the ends justify the means.  Once that motto is accepted, and one employs and trains people in such a capacity, it is a bit naive and hypocritical to express outrage when such agents act dishonestly.  The only pertinent question is whether his dishonesty extends to the information he has produced to the public.  Is this disinformation?  So far the answer appears to be a resounding no.  He is allowing it to be vetted, and their substance has already forced debate and changes in government policy.

Of course if dishonesty is such an outrage, why should we stop with Snowden?  One of the revelations coming from the data he has provided is that James Clapper lied to congress under oath.  That is not only dishonest, it is a crime.  Yet the administration has not taken him to task for this, morally or legally, nor did it "man up" and take the heat for having allowed such a deception to occur in the first place.

Loyalty (aka patriotism). This sort of walks hand in hand with honesty.  Intelligence agencies depend on disloyalty, and promote it wherever they can.  Though perhaps that is too cartoonish a charge.  Rather they depend on shifting loyalties, promoting the trade-off of one's loyalty to one group or ideal toward another group or ideal. Though they are not adverse to exploiting or promoting blanket disloyalty if they need it. So it is a bit naive and hypocritical to decry its appearance in one of your agents.   But the question is if this charge is true about Snowden?

It seems undeniable that Snowden was disloyal and broke his vows to the organizations of which he was a member.  Again, he admits this in full.  The point he has made is that these organizations began to act in a way that forced him to choose between his loyalty to them, and the nation they were sworn to protect.  When an organization begins to break its own vows, its members are generally freed to choose between a continued commitment to the organization (wherever it goes) or to the initial vows they made.  That is certainly a tough call to make.  Snowden has made his case that he has remained patriotic to the nation, acting on its behalf, while leaving behind (and acting against) organizations that have themselves broken vows toward the nation and the rights they were supposed to protect.  Given the admissions and changes he has already caused, and would not have happened without his revelations, I think the evidence so far is on his side.  I for one could use more of the disloyalty he has shown, and less of the disloyalty that the NSA and others in the US government were exposed practicing.

One further conundrum Kerry posed is whether true patriots ever flee their country.  Of course they do.  Hasn't the US traditionally embraced exiles and refugees as true patriots, granting them the space and safety they need to enact changes to errant regimes and organizations within their homelands?  A more pertinent question is whether those that knuckle under to such regimes and organizations, allowing them to trample their rights, are loyal or patriotic even if they manage the bold feat of merely staying at home?

Justice. If  it needs repeating, intelligence agencies routinely break laws and promote their agents to bend or break them as needed to achieve specific ends. It should not be surprising, and sounds ridiculous to lament, when such an agent does that very thing.  Snowden claims that the organization he was working for had itself begun breaking fundamental legal protections (rights) of US citizens.  He felt the ends of rectifying that injustice, called for the lesser injustice regarding broken contracts which called for continued law-breaking against the people he was sworn to protect.

He has apparently opted to let the importance of his data work on his behalf in the court of public opinion, rather than trusting in the restricted courts owned by the very organization he has accused of criminal activity.  Frankly, that would seem to be the wise move.

Bravery/Responsibility (aka "man up").  It is hard to understand this charge.  He has owned up to his actions publicly, and is attempting to continue his fight against corruption where he can.  What more is expected from anyone?  The idea that a brave man puts himself into the hands of the people he accuses of corruption, to be judged by them, is pure fantasy.  It is certainly is not the practice of intelligence agencies, regular law enforcement, or the military.  That would be rank stupidity.  And if anything, it takes a brave person to recognize that in some circumstances discretion is the better part of valor.

Kerry's challenge is itself an absurdity when the government remains involved with housing "detainees" in Guantanamo, and holding extra-judicial courts (military tribunals).  If a nation of millions cannot "man up" enough to face handfuls of individuals on our own soil, in our own system of justice, fully under our control, why should we expect a single person to brave much worse odds?

It is also the height of hypocrisy to demand an individual's reckless bravery when the US public as a whole is being encouraged to be so afraid of potential attacks that we ought to allow government agencies to infringe on our rights (basically unquestioned and unobserved).  Shouldn't we all "man up" and take responsibility for our own security, and preserve our rights to privacy and free speech?  Wouldn't a brave, responsible people reject in large measure the need for such organizations as the NSA?  Or at the very least, reject the need for their their constant and wholesale monitoring of our communications?

Let me propose a counter challenge (to the administration and the public at large).  It is also a question of character.  If we indeed want to instill concepts of honesty, loyalty, justice, and bravery in our society, perhaps we need to reconsider the existence and employment of organizations and procedures that depend and promote the very opposite traits.

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