Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Snowden: Traitor? Heroic whistleblower? Or?

My local public radio station did a segment on the NSA self-styled whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Nearly all of the dozens of commenters treated this issue as a no-brainer. Big Snoopy Government BAD, heroic Little Guy Whistleblower GOOD. With the corollary of Another Whistleblower Was Right And They Done Him Wrong--Therefore anyone who claims he's also a whistleblower is Right.

Not so fast. One reason why there's an Ex Presidents' Club --including all the former Prez's of both parties--is that nobody else really knows what the gig entails. Every President made fine-sounding statements before getting the job that he had to revisit later.

The Constitution predates the global Islamofascist movement, the Internet, the computer, the radio, the telephone, the telegraph. It even predates the steam locomotive, for that matter. Most Americans would be hard-pressed to imagine what the world was like for the people who wrote and ratified the Constitution. What was prescient about the Founders was that most of them knew they didn't know what the future would hold. So they wrote the Constitution in generalities for the most part, because they wanted to establish principles and protections without trying to micromanage...well, us.

They say wisdom is knowing what you don't know. Score one for the Founders, zero for the outraged multitudes who confidently assume they actually know what the scoop is here. And as the Prez pointed out, perfect privacy is only attainable at the expense of total exposure to terrorist attacks, while perfect protection from terrorist attacks is only attainable at the expense of zero privacy. If there were another 9/11 on President Obama's watch, would any of these self-righteous denouncers say "Well, that was acceptable collateral damage as long as the government doesn't know who I'm phoning."

The right answer, however uncomfortable, is a compromise between safety and personal privacy--stirring Patrick Henry quotes notwithstanding. No government always gets this right, but we have to guard against calling for more privacy whenever someone takes it upon himself to spill secret beans--and then against calling for more safety when we get bombed.

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