Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?

Snowden’s plight evokes Joseph Heller’s “tragic-comic military system where only crazy people seem sane,” thinks Godfrey
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This still frame grab recorded on June 6, 2013 and released to AFP on June 10, 2013 shows Edward Snowden, who has been working at the National Security Agency for the past four years, speaking during an interview with The Guardian newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong. PHOTO: AFP

In Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 we follow a WWII bombardier struggle with a secret he learns from a young man named Snowden as he bleeds to death in the back of an airplane.

“Man is matter, that was Snowden’s secret,” Heller wrote. “Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage.”

On June 10, a young intelligence contractor named Edward Snowden revealed a similar secret in Hong Kong—a secret for our present age.

He let everyone in the world know that their emails and telephone calls were being secretly monitored by an Administration that sold itself on a broad platform of hope, transparency and humanity.

Now Snowden is now being hunted like a Cold War spy—a “traitor” forced to seek refuge in nations that the United States has long denounced for their poor consideration of things like transparency and humanity.

Obama and his allies have done an amazing job of sweeping the significance of Snowden’s revelation under the rug by bloviating about danger, disloyalty and criminality. A series of opinion polls have validated their efforts by revealing the United States as a nation satisfied to be under surveillance, forever and always.

They are not alone.

“Plenty of Brits are perfectly happy to have their real-life 007s gather all the information they need,” wrote John Horsey, a Pulitzer-prize winning editorial cartoonist for the LA Times in an astonishingly pretentious dispatch from London. “On Sunday, I shared brandy with a couple of gentlemen at the club who expressed the view that, for the safety of their country, a muscular spying operation is a necessity.”

And those may be the biggest secrets of all—secrets I’m sure Snowden wished he’d known before he stuck his neck out for us all.

Americans and Englishmen don’t care anymore about their privacy; they’re like bodies without a spirit.

The age of garbage

In so many ways, the Edward Snowden story reads like something Heller wrote on a bender.

Take, for instance, the law he’s being charged under—the Espionage Act of 1917, which President Woodrow Wilson promised would stamp out “citizens of the United States…who would pour the poison of disloyalty into the very veins of our national life.”

The high school history teacher who taught me about the law framed it as an absurd relic of a dark, bygone era—something people just forgot to repeal after the disastrous effort to destroy Daniel Ellsburg.

“Remember I taught you before 9-11, things have changed,” she wrote in an email. “Americans are much more willing to accept restrictions in the name of safety.”

At the moment, America’s elected officials are behaving like cartoon villains, ranting about how everyone in the world should help them “get” Snowden. Naturally, not one of these garbage people has offered a convincing argument as to why.

Senator Charles Schumer has taken the position of a wounded schoolyard bully demanding to know why his friend, Vladimir Putin, would dare to “stick his finger in the eye of the US” by not arresting Snowden on arrival.

The question itself seems absurd, given Snowden’s revelation that the US had attempted to hack into his predecessor’s telephone during a G8 summit.

But absurdity is the name of the game.

Sen. Rand Paul has warned Snowden that he will remain a hero in the eye of everyone so long as he stays out of countries that are “perceived as enemies” (i.e. countries that won’t render him to a CIA star chamber) while a fellow party member suggested Snowden visit North Korea and Iran to “round out his government oppression tour.”

Sen. Diane Feinstein has openly questioned why Snowden hasn’t returned to “face the music” for violating his sacred CIA loyalty oath; the “music” in this case being a trial for treason. She has also claimed that Snowden must be swiftly apprehended for the things he didn’t do.

He “might” have up to 200 “items” in his possession she told the press, without indicating what those items might be or how they posed a danger to anyone but people like herself.

Implicit in all of this is an acknowledgement that the US security apparatus remains forever engaged in things that make it look terrible—or would if anyone ever came clean about them.

Snowden told reporters in Hong Kong that his decision to leak was influenced by the numerous members of congress who had lied (under oath, no less) about the program’s existence.

Vote for Crazy

On the day Snowden landed in Moscow, The New York Times Editorial Board shook its finger at the NYPD for its illegal surveillance of innocent Muslims. The program involved installing security cameras outside of mosques and trying to entrap members of a legitimate charity organization in fictitious terrorist plots.

The editorial smacks of the devilish irony that became Heller’s signature. After all, how upset can anyone get about an illegal surveillance program in a nation where everyone is being illegally surveyed?

US lawmakers now seem to say that the right and true thing for Snowden to do would be to return to the wonderful post 9-11 American justice system; the very same system that prevented elected officials from warning their constituents about the program.

Shortly before his untimely death this month, journalist Michael Hastings described the predicament of abiding by the laws of Catch-22 America.

“The state of affairs […] is so grave that two sitting Senators went as close as they could to violating their unconstitutional security oaths in order to warn the country of information that would not have been declassified until April of 2038,” he wrote in his final column for Buzzfeed.

Hastings then went on to list the seven journalists and whistleblowers who have been harassed or imprisoned for leaking or publishing information about the new security apparatus.

Days later, he emailed his friends and colleagues to warn them about possible visits from FBI agents—a message the agency would later dismiss as baseless.

The following morning, Hastings’ Mercedes crashed into a tree in Los Angeles and burst into flames, burning his body beyond recognition. Several mainstream media outlets reported on the conspiracy theories his fantastic demise has inspired.

And that seems to be the way things are going to be from now on.

In an age when the US government openly acknowledges that it is wiretapping the world, you can bet that the speculation around Hastings’ crash is just the tip of the paranoia iceberg. When everyone agrees that they’d simply rather not know things, the line between possibility and paranoid fantasy blurs.

After President Obama pledged to use “appropriate legal channels” to reel Snowden in, former Congressman Ron Paul got on television and publicly expressed fears that the US government might try to kill him with a Predator drone strike.

“We live in a bad time where American citizens don’t even have rights and they can be killed,” he said.

Popular Science responded by carrying a wonky blog post describing the logistical impossibility of a Predator drone strike in Hong Kong. Instead, they recommended a “Switchblade,” a small, submarine-launched, remote controlled, single-use mini-drone that has been used in Afghanistan to blow up trucks and people for over a year.

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