“You said that the F.B.I. cleared Edward Snowden of acting with anyone else or as part of a spy ring. Why are we even talking about this then? How can Mike Rogers pretend the F.B.I. report doesn’t exist, go on TV, and accuse Snowden of being a spy for the Russian secret police?”
“When you’re trying to sell a lie,” said Tom, “you don’t acknowledge the truth and apologize. You don’t shut your mouth and slink away. You ignore the truth and boldly repeat the lie. You repeat it over and over, and in this case Snowden’s attackers got TV talk shows to offer them a forum to spew their falsehoods on three major networks on one Sunday. Tell me, doesn’t that strike you as a bit strange--this massive, one-sided, simultaneous attack on Snowden?”
“Now that you mention it,” I said, “it does seem weird. It’s just too great a coincidence to think that three networks all decided independently to feature attacks on Snowden on the same day. Somebody had to have coordinated it. Orchestrated it. To pretend it just happened accidentally is as likely as numerous Japanese planes all just happening to descend on Pearl Harbor at the same time on the same day in 1941.”
Tom nodded agreement. “I think of it as ‘the sound of one tongue flapping’,” he said. “The congressional leadership on intelligence, the NSA, the administration, and the main stream media have formed a chorus, all singing the same melody with the same lyrics, trying to drown out Mr. Snowden’s message.”
“I don’t know if many people have followed all the details, though, Tom. It’s a lot to keep up with.”
“I’m not sure people have to, Ace. Besides looking at the evidence, which we’ve already done, there’s a different method people often use to decide who’s likely to be telling the truth. It’s not based on a legal model, with evidence and witnesses, but it’s a rough-and-ready method that people have been using for centuries.”
“You mean torture?” I gasped.
“No, no,” he said, startled. “I mean just asking yourself what people stand to gain in a situation. That often makes pretty clear who’s likely to be lying.”
“Ah, I’ve got it now. Sure. Shoot,” I said.
“Not a good choice of words, Ace,” said Tom. “Several anonymous members of our spy agencies have said they’d like to kill Mr. Snowden.”
“Oh, right. Sorry,” I said.
“Anyway,” Tom went on, “What did Mr. Snowden gain when he decided to take his knowledge of the NSA’s secret surveillance to the public?” Again he started ticking off points on his fingers. “It cost him his well-paying job and his career. It threw him into exile, separated him from his family and girlfriend, held a strong likelihood of capture and long-term imprisonment, exposed him to personal attacks and slander, and--as I mentioned--drew predictable threats of assassination.”
“That’s a lot to sacrifice,” I said.
“Those are losses--enormous losses,” agreed Tom. “So what did he gain? He’s poorer, lonelier, isolated, and under attack. He knew full well what the consequences would be when he made his decision. His only gains are intangibles: a clear conscience and the knowledge that he has offered the public a chance to make an informed decision on living under a surveillance state. He says that if he ends up in a ditch somewhere, it still will have been worth it.”
“When you lay it out that way, he’s somebody you just have to admire,” I said. “I don’t think I could do what he did.”
“Don’t think badly of yourself,” Tom said kindly. “Cesar Chavez once said that ‘To be a man is to suffer for others.‘ I don’t think Chavez meant that in a sexist way; I think he meant that shouldering your responsibilities to your family, your community, or your country, even at great personal cost, is the price you must be willing to pay if you want to hold on to your self-respect and your integrity. I’m sure that, faced with a similar choice, you’d make the right decision.”
I didn’t know what to say for a minute. I hadn’t expected his last comment. It may have been the kindest thing anyone has ever said to me--and I wasn’t sure he was right. “Thanks, Tom,” I managed.
“You’re welcome, Ace,” he said. “You know, integrity isn’t easy or cheap. If it were, there would be a Hallelujah Chorus of whistleblowers in the NSA, and congress would be an honored gallery of respected public servants. Edward Snowden was in a position where he had a choice to make, but in some respects, everyone he worked with was faced with the same choice. He could continue to be a faceless part of an enormous secret bureaucracy that is striking at the very heart of our democracy. Or he could be a man, expose the secrets and lies, and suffer the consequences.”
“Okay,” I said. “So you've laid out what Snowden lost and gained. But what about his attackers?”
Tom paused and thought for a moment. “We can only make guesses as to what Mr. Rogers, Ms. Feinstein, and Mr. McCaul stand to gain,” he said, “but they stand to lose nothing--with the possible exception of self-respect. They have cast their lot with the powers that be, and there’s safety and security in that. They’ve received publicity and an additional measure of fame. Their political fortunes will continue to prosper, since they’ve proven to be reliably on the side of secrecy, control, and authoritarianism. At the worst, they will remain well paid, powerful, and ‘respectable’.”
“So they made out pretty well in the deal,” I said.
He held me with his eyes. “That’s the world’s way of looking at it, Ace. There’s another way. ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’”
That’s what makes conversations with Tom so unsettling. You’re having a conversation at a normal level about some topic, and then suddenly he takes you to a different place entirely. I didn’t feel corrected exactly. More like uncomfortably enlarged.
“We can’t read their minds or hearts,” Tom went on. “We don’t know what their motives were or what pressure was brought to bear on them. Still, from the outside, it’s hard not to be skeptical. Perhaps they were attempting to divert the public’s attention from their own collusion in hiding the extent to which the NSA is spying on all of us. The Constitution expects congress to put a check on attempts by the executive branch to grab dangerous power. Instead, these leaders have acted as bipartisan enablers for the dismantling of democracy. It goes against the grain to speak of people that way, but what else is there to do when they’re apologists for the construction of a police state that makes 1984 look like Summerhill?”
“You seem to be describing them not as real leaders or powerful decision makers, but as servants of someone or something else,” I said.
“I guess I am,” said Tom. “Despite the high offices Mr. Rogers, Ms. Feinstein, and Mr. McCaul hold, I believe it would be a mistake to see them as anything other than pawns in the hands of the national security state. Mr. Snowden has challenged the nature and the intentions of the security apparatus, so he must be condemned, slandered, discredited, or silenced by any means necessary. Now, in both a geographic and a spiritual sense, he's beyond their control, and that must infuriate them. In a way few of us can claim to be, he is a free man. He has been willing to risk everything to share that freedom. I just don’t know if the rest of us are willing to take the risk of joining him.”
“Why’s he doing it, Tom? What motivates him?”
“That’s a good question, Ace. Who knows? It’s hard to discredit him in the usual ways, because his critics can’t pin a label on him and pigeonhole him. I’ve come to think of him as an ‘odd prophet.’ He’s leading a solitary, almost cloistered life, devoid of luxuries and even ordinary things most of us think of as necessities. He’s living the lifestyle of a monk, but doesn’t seem to be religious. He’s not preaching fire and brimstone, nor is he a political firebrand, out to destroy capitalism on the one hand or to promote socialism or communism on the other. He’s not a Democrat or a Republican.”
“So we’re stuck with thinking of him with negatives? What he’s not?”
“I don’t think so, Ace. He’s an honest man and a courageous man. He seems patriotic; he has been careful not to damage our country. The best way I can come up with to describe his motivation and faith is that they’re those of a good systems analyst: ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ He approaches democracy as if it’s a kind of computer for making decisions. Citizens need clean data coming in. Instead, we were getting bad numbers and lies, and that was something he ultimately couldn’t tolerate. So he provided us with clean data--the truth about the NSA’s spying--and said now the decision is up to us.”
He stopped. “Thanks for listening to all that, Ace,” he said. “That was almost as good as shoveling snow.”
“You’re welcome,” I told him. “If you’ll hand me that shovel and hold my dog for a minute, I think I could use a dose of that manual meditation myself.”
© Tony Russell, 2014