Edward Snowden: Hero or Criminal?

I deliberately chose a bad title for this post because I think it gets to the heart of the matter while missing the point. Hero or criminal? Are the terms mutually exclusive? Of course not. And it's not just that "one man's hero is another man's criminal." To me, Snowden is both.

What is a hero? Someone who takes great risks to do something they believe is right in order to help others. Critically, I think others have to appreciate this in order for the act to be heroic. The Oklahoma City Bomber may well have thought he was doing the country a favor by blowing up a building and killing loads of people. I think nearly everyone can agree we don't need that kind of "help." So the term is subjective, but does have clear elements. Notice there is nothing about "the law" in the definition.

We all know what a criminal is: someone who breaks the law. We might even expand the definition to include social norms that aren't laws (many consider bank chiefs criminals, even though it seems we can't pin any actual offenses on them). Note that breaking the law is not subjective, nor do we generally allow for "good reasons." (For example, a woman who murders her husband because he abused her, while perhaps gaining some sympathy, is still a murderer and will rightly go to prison.)

Snowden? Is he a hero? He definitely took a risk to do something he believed was right. Is he self-righteous? Perhaps, but many heroes probably are, so I don't think that matters. The big question here is: Do the people he thinks he's helping appreciate the help? I think the answer is "yes." Apparently, Americans are fairly divided (despite the blog title, which suggests Americans are heavily opposed) on the issue of NSA data collection and there are a lot of Snowden supporters out there, to be sure. Also, I suspect that even many people who approve of the NSA's activities are secretly also happy that they know more about them now.

I personally knew of the NSA's metadata collection long before Snowden leaked it. It was public information. The extent to which the NSA was doing it was not clear, however, nor was some of the information about monitoring of emails, websites, and social media. I am against this level of surveillance, but I also am not aware that the US Government has broken any laws or done anything necessarily unconstitutional. The laws just allow too much.

I'm happy the information Snowden released has come to light. I'm also clear that his releasing it, especially his hacking into areas he was not legally granted access, was illegal. He is a criminal, but his flight around the world definitely has a strongly heroic vibe, which is why he as a person (the hero being pursued by the long arm of a global super power) has perhaps more potential to damage the US's reputation than the coming to light of US surveillance activities.


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