Edward Snowden is no Socrates and no Martin Luther King. • I'll explain these outlandish comparisons in a bit, but first, the confession that I was not erudite enough to come up with them myself. The insight comes courtesy of the Aspen Institute's Justice and Society Seminar, where I've been spending days pondering at times abstruse texts that turn out to have surprising resonance with current events. Among them: how to think about whether Snowden was justified in leaking classified materials about U.S. surveillance programs and further justified in fleeing the country.
King and Socrates (actually, Plato channeling Socrates) helped convince me that the answer to both is no, as much as Snowden likes to cast himself along such heroic lines. To listen to Snowden, he acted in a noble tradition of civil disobedience by revealing what he asserts is illegal surveillance by the National Security Agency.
"I believe in the principle declared at Nuremberg in 1945," the former security contractor pronounced from his Russian limbo last week. "Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.
"Accordingly, I did what I believed right and began a campaign to correct this wrongdoing," Snowden continued. "I did not seek to enrich myself. I did not seek to sell U.S. secrets. … Instead, I took what I knew to the public, so what affects all of us can be discussed by all of us in the light of day, and I asked the world for justice."
Contrast Snowden's missive — call it "Statement from Sheremetyevo Airport" — with King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." Snowden doesn't stack up well.
King argues that he was justified in ignoring pleas to work within a system that had proved itself ineffective to deal with segregation. Snowden simply chose to bypass the system — risking national security, in the assessment of intelligence officials — without trying alternatives such as using the whistle-blower statute or going to Congress.
Most vividly, unlike King, Snowden lacked the courage to stick around to defend his actions. "One who breaks an unjust law must do it … with a willingness to accept the penalty," King writes. "I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law." (Italics mine.)
There is room for disagreement about whether Snowden's leaks were justified. I don't think so, although I acknowledge that his action have sparked an important, and overdue, conversation about surveillance. But Snowden's justifications for fleeing are unconvincing.
"I have been made stateless and hounded for my act of political expression," he declared from the Moscow airport. Not true. Snowden's "hounding" stems from his deliberate decision to violate the criminal law. In the United States he was free to express any political view — certainly freer than he would be in countries like Russia, Venezuela or Ecuador.
Snowden asserts that his flight was justified by the harsh treatment of another leaker, former Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning. Snowden claims that surrendering could expose him to torture or even assassination by the U.S. government. "That's not justice, and it would be foolish to volunteer yourself to it if you can do more good outside of prison than in it," Snowden said in a Web chat with The Guardian newspaper.
This is not the Socratic method. In 399 B.C., an Athenian jury convicted the philosopher of impiety and of corrupting the city's youth, and sentenced him to death. As related by Plato, Socrates' friend Crito visits him in prison and urges Socrates to escape.
Socrates refuses. Even though the conviction is unjust, he argues, it would be wrong — having benefited from living under the laws of Athens and agreed to abide by the jury's judgment — to now seek to evade his punishment.
Socrates imagines the law as if it were an actual character, chiding him: "You are behaving like the lowest type of menial, trying to run away in spite of the contracts and undertakings by which you agreed to live as a member of our state."
So Socrates remains, and drinks the prescribed hemlock. Which makes Socrates a great philosopher, and Snowden the lowest type of menial.
Ruth Marcus' email address is ruthmarcuswashpost.com.
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