is it treason?

Checking in with the news today has felt a little bit like watching geopolitical pacman, hasn’t it? Snowden and the US are going to chase each other around and around the world, dipping in and out of countries and going forward and backward in relation to visa requirements, extradition treaties, and who’s friends with who this week, until one eats the other. It’s not particularly edifying.

@anamariecox: “For the record: I think Snowden’s leaks were to the public good, but that, yes, he might have broken the law. Both can be true.”

By and large I agree with Ana Marie Cox’s tweet. I think that precipitating a discussion about the way spying and surveillance are developing in the digital world is a good thing. I may not be surprised that the NSA or GCHQ are keeping an eye on as much of the general public’s communication as possible, but that doesn’t mean I’m not disappointed that they do, or that the public, generally (and especially in the US post–9/11) enable them to do that by demanding security from terror above their own freedom. I don’t, actually think that surveilling everything would even be the best way to create such security, were it even possible, but by allowing governments and security services to turn it into this kind of zero sum game, we don’t allow that debate, or the kind of debate about what kind of security we want and are willing to live with that Snowden’s leaks have triggered. When William Hague stood up in the House of Commons a couple of weeks ago and declared that the security services was acting within the law he was thoroughly – deliberately, I imagine – missing the point, which is not whether or not such surveillance is legal, but why it is legal and whether or not it should be legal.

John Cusack wrote last week on Boing Boing about what he has called, ‘The Snowden Principle’ :

From the State’s point of view, he’s committed a crime. From his point of view, and the view of many others, he has sacrificed for the greater good because he knows people have the right to know what the government is doing in their name. And legal, or not, he saw what the government was doing as a crime against the people and our rights.

I got the impression from his Guardian interview that Snowden knew the risk he was taking, that he was breaking the law, no matter what he thought of the law, and that he was ready for what would follow. I would like to imagine that a bit of him would quite like to be able to go back to the USA and have that debate in a court of law. But I can also imagine that to someone who made the decision he made because he wasn’t happy with the way security was going, and who has seen how Bradley Manning has been treated, and that his President has yet to close down Guantanamo, (and frankly, to anyone watching how the US governemnt has dealt with all such challenges and questions over the past decade) it is quite clear that an open trial and strong debate would not be result of his return to his country. It’s hard to blame him for the route he’s taking, regardless of what one thinks of the regimes in the countries he will stop in, or the people he associates with to get there.

Meanwhile, the discussion as to whether Snowden is a traitor or a hero has sent me back to my PhD thesis, because, honestly, this debate was done by Cicero and Antony in 43 B.C., and if the US government wants to know how to present someone as a traitor effectively, they only need to look at de Officiis and the Philippics (and they have the army that Cicero didn’t…) Cicero made the relationship of the citizen with the res publica as a political community the basis of a successful, stable polity, with an understanding of justice the guiding light of the citizen’s service of the community, enabling the individual to balance their own interests with those of the res publica. For him, in 43, the citizen who endangered the Republic was not a true citizen – because without this political community, a citizen had no status, and the citizen who did not act in the interests of the community had broken his legal obligations and was not, legally, a citizen.

But who gets to decide what endangers the community, and what is in its interests? Apart from Cicero, obviously. Who defines treason? Well, the government. And if we think the government are doing it wrong? What then.

I’ve also been watching The White Queen on BBC. It’s utterly daft, but it did have one interesting moment in the first week in between the romance and pretty king-ness there was a moment between Elizabeth Woodville’s mother Jacquetta and Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor.

Margaret: ‘Though some of us still loyal to our own house.’
Jacquetta: ‘These are different times, Lady Margaret. Lancaster brought us only war, King Edward will bring us peace.’
M: ‘He is a pretender, he has taken the throne by force.’
J: ‘He is the king, those who speak against him are guilty of treason.’

They’re arguing, effectively, about the divine right of kings, which Henry VI has, vs. the military victory and popular acclaim that Edward IV has, about what – and who – defines legitimacy. I can’t help but feel that in America the idea of ‘America’ and the mantra ‘God bless America’, invoked by the Presidency, is becoming like the divine right of kings and as unquestionable as it. But Snowden, with Glenn Greenwald and others reporting on these leaks, is questioning it and what it allows you to do – and of course the government is going to fight it. But they should probably think about how, because they’re in danger of looking like the Big Bad Wolf. Maybe they should go to the theatre and watch some Tom Stoppard instead…

But politics, justice, patriotism – they aren’t even like coffee mugs. There’s nothing real there separate from our perception of them. So if you try and change them as though there were something to change, you’ll get frustrated and frustration will finally make you violent. If you know this and proceed with humility, you may perhaps alter people’s perceptions so that they behave a little differently at that axis of behaviour where we locate politics or justice. But if you don’t know this, then you’re acting on a mistake.
The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard

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