Snowden: Both a Hero and a Traitor?

It's reasonable to be both outraged by his actions and concerned about the government spying he revealed.

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For more than a month, accused secret-stealer Edward Snowden has been holed up in the uncomfortable airport lounge in Moscow. That status has frustrated U.S. authorities who want him back to prosecute him, while further infuriating defenders who see Snowden as some sort of hero for knowingly and deliberately leaking classified information about surveillance (and who knows what else) to two newspapers.

Snowden, today, finally left the airport, securing a one-year asylum deal with Russia. Meanwhile, a very spirited debate – finally – is raging in Washington over just how much snooping we ought to allow our government to do on its own citizens. It's a discussion that should have been held around 2001, when Congress was in post-9/11 freakout mode and approved the USA PATRIOT Act without fully thinking through what the law was going to mean for the civil liberties our terrorist enemies supposedly hate.

Unfortunately, our political culture has deviated down to the point where people are expected to take a side. Should Snowden be pardoned and upheld as a courageous hero who exposed troubling activities of the U.S. government? Or should he rot in a U.S. prison (which, he and his supporters may not understand, could be a lot more comfortable than the airport lounge in Moscow)?

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

The reality is that it's reasonable to feel both ways. You can look at Snowden and be appalled at his blithe breaking of not only the law, but of the national security oath he took. You can conclude that this is some narcissistic, Starbucks slacker type who wanted attention and knew he could get it by being a B-movie version of Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame.

You can also feel a little sorry for him, and believe there was a side to him that thought his actions would cause more good than harm. You can feel for his family, who surely must worry what's going to happen to a young man who paradoxically is seeking asylum to avoid prosecution on his purported civil liberties mission in countries where there are few if any civil liberties. His father, Lon Snowden, is surely worried about his son, although he doesn't help the younger Snowden's image by telling the Washington Post that his son should be back in Hawaii, where he should have "taken the big paycheck, lived with his beautiful girlfriend and enjoyed paradise. Never mind that the "beautiful girlfriend his son apparently has is depicted as just another trophy; the elder Snowden makes his son sound like a Mafia don with his gun moll.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should Americans Be Worried About the National Security Agency's Data Collection?]

You can, while finding Snowden's behavior selfish and reckless and distasteful, still be very concerned about what your government is doing. You can worry, rightly, about your privacy on the phone and the Internet. You can also rethink the many ways in which you might have voluntarily given up your own privacy, revealing things on Facebook and providing personal information to advertisers and websites. You can, nonetheless, expect your own government to show better judgment and more respect for civil liberties. And you can demand that your elected officials explain and re-think the extraordinary power they gave to intelligence-gathering authorities when the biggest fear was of another massive terrorist attack instead of an assault on our own privacy.

It is possible to detest what Snowden did, and to question his motives, while still appreciating the dialogue his actions have spurred. The law is the law. Sometimes it gets broken, and people are prosecuted. And sometimes, it needs to be re-examined.

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