Snowden's Uncivil Disobedience

Resisters who break a law must accept that they may be arrested and have a duty to submit to punishment.

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In July 1846, Massachusetts tax collector Sam Staples confronted Henry David Thoreau, a transcendentalist period philosopher, over his delinquent six-year tax bill. Staples threatened Thoreau with arrest if he didn't pay, but Thoreau refused. He opposed the Mexican-American War and slavery, and didn't want to give the government money to fund things he objected to. He willingly went to jail.

Thoreau justified his actions in his classic essay "Resistance to Civil Government." He wrote that government rarely proves itself useful. It derives its power from the majority: the strongest group, but one that often supports laws dangerous to the common good. He argued that the public's first obligation is to do what is right. People must break laws they believe to be immoral, unjust or dangerous. They must practice civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience tends to take one of three, non-mutually-exclusive, forms. Integrity-based civil disobedience is when one breaks a law for moral reasons, such as when pro-life demonstrators break the Freedom of Access to Entrances Act by blocking the entrances to abortion clinics. Justice-based civil disobedience is when one disobeys a law to claim a right denied them. Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger on December 14, 1955 in Montgomery, Ala. is a good example. Policy-based civil disobedience is when one breaks a law to encourage reform of a bad or dangerous government policy. ACT UP, an organization that works to improve the lives of people living with AIDS, practiced policy-based civil disobedience when its members stormed the New York Stock Exchange in September 1989. The group was protesting health care policies that made AZT, the only anti-HIV drug available at the time, too costly for the average person to afford.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

Edward Snowden, the former intelligence analyst who leaked to the Guardian and Washington Post classified documents on the National Security Agency's anti-terrorism surveillance program is not practicing policy-based civil disobedience, or any form of civil disobedience for that matter – despite Sen. Rand Paul's claim to the contrary. His flight to Hong Kong and possible efforts to win asylum from Iceland or China violate a central tenet of the philosophy. Resisters who break a law must accept that they may be arrested and have a duty to submit to punishment.

Moreover, Snowden, to answer a question posed yesterday by Jacob Hayutin on this site, is not a whistle-blower. A whistle-blower is one who reveals to the public wrongdoing, corruption or illegal behavior committed by those in authority, but who also cooperates with investigators as they work to ascertain the veracity of those allegations. Snowden had a chance to properly blow the whistle. He could have reported serious problems associated with the National Security Agency program to Congress under a process established by the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act. The law would have provided Snowden legal protections and given Congress an opportunity to properly investigate the matter without jeopardizing national security. 

As of now, Snowden is an unpredictable variable carrying a trove of information of great value to countries conducting espionage activities against the United States. If Snowden is truly committed to protecting American democracy, to demonstrating civil disobedience, he should voluntarily return to the United States immediately. Otherwise, the government should exercise whatever legal means it has at its disposal to bring him back to the U.S. to face the consequences of his actions.

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