Jelani Cobb has made an important argument about the Edward Snowden case. I’ve heard it before from accomplished historians of the civil rights movement, and I’ve made it myself in counseling young activists who have broken the law. It goes like this. Accept the consequences of your civil disobedience, as testimony to your faith in a higher law than the statutes can bear for now, as witness to the freedoms you have performed by breaking beyond the law: with your actions, demonstrate how oppression is imposed and how change happens with your body as well as your words.
Here’s how Cobb puts it:
The cornerstone achievements in American rights were attainable precisely because their proponents refused to avoid consequences for their dissent. In 1920, Eugene Debs ran for president from behind bars to highlight his opposition to World War I and labor exploitation in the United States. During the civil-rights movement, the young activists of SNCC adopted a “Jail, No Bail” strategy not only because of the financial burdens of raising money but also because their willingness to remain in prison, to suffer for their cause, eroded the moral standing of the men responsible for their arrests. Nelson Mandela understood that point, opting to remain in prison for 27 years and refusing offers of release that hinged upon him renouncing his cause. More aptly, Daniel Ellsberg endorsed Snowden’s actions, but Ellsberg himself remained within the United States after he released the Pentagon Papers. Had he fled the country, the Nixon administration might not have pursued the actions that ultimately brought about its own demise. . . .
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” A half-century after supporters smuggled King’s note out of the facility and oversaw its publication, it remains the clearest distillation of the meaning and implications of dissent. Edward Snowden is a figure of current events, but if he wishes to become a figure of history or, more crucially, advance the important arguments he has forced us to think about, he should return to the United States. “Dispatch From an Undisclosed Location” simply doesn’t carry the same weight.
I’m afraid that the civil rights analogy can’t work in this instance, unless you’re willing to broaden it to include Malcolm X’s prescient efforts to accuse the U.S. of human rights violations under the terms of the UN Charter.
Why not? First, the tricky difference between foreign and domestic policy. These have been mixed up in the Snowden case, of course, because the FISA guidelines permit routine surveillance of exchanges between US citizens and foreign nationals by the NSA; but one of his revelations is that the distinction makes no difference. The FBI spied on MLK, to be sure, but if he had leaked or documented his knowledge of COINTELPRO, would he have been subject to indefinite detention, extraordinary rendition, or a military tribunal, on the grounds that he had compromised national security? Was he ever formally accused of espionage, indicted or incarcerated for such a capital offense?
Edward Snowden has already been charged with espionage by a government that has yet to acknowledge any limits on its legal scope or military power in fighting a “war on terror.” As I have said in other venues, if he returns to the U.S. to be tried for this charge, his trial cannot be public because the NSA, the CIA, and the Justice Department will not present evidence in a court of law that they have refused to disclose to the Congress, let alone the press and the large public.
For Snowden to reenact the example of “civil disobedience” would, then, be to silence himself and his sources. Is that what we wanted or expected from Daniel Ellsberg, who had the cooperation of the paper of record? Who could count on the support of the Supreme Court as well as the liberal media, not to mention a social movement that had made the war in Vietnam the central issue of the time? Is silence what we want from this moment of doubt about the reliability and the resilience of these media?
What more do you want from this young man? In our circumstances, the past as you, Jelani, depict it is neither a map of the present nor a guide to the future.
Second, in our circumstances, the infinite scope of the state’s power is aided, abetted, approved, and excused by the very liberal media that, in the civil rights era, took the other side. We’ve arrived at what Vaclav Havel called the post-totalitarian society. So, in the absence of the old-time urge to speak truth to power, except where the McClatchy Newspapers get published, what’s a dissident who has massive evidence of unconstitutional and unlawful government conduct supposed to do? Stay home and be forever silenced by the merry collaboration of the executive branch and The New Yorker? Or go into exile, with some hope of asylum because there are nation-states with grievances against the US?
I would like to believe that the civil rights movement is the template for “resistance” in this strange moment, when the beloved community is more necessary than ever. But it won’t work, not for Edward Snowden. MLK called us home, to the promise of the Declaration and the spirit of constitutional law, from here, from Montgomery and Selma and Chicago and Memphis. The mere fact that Snowden has to make his call from an undisclosed location tells me that our moral coordinates and our political horizons have changed so fundamentally since the 1960s that we don’t even know what’s inside and what’s outside this body politic.