Edward Snowden’s Moral Courage

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Last Thursday Chris Hedges opened a team debate at the Oxford Union at Oxford University with this speech arguing in favor of the proposition “This house would call Edward Snowden a hero.” The others on the Hedges team, which won the debate by an audience vote of 212 to 171, were William E. Binney, a former National Security Agency official and a whistle-blower; Chris Huhne, a former member of the British Parliament; and Annie Machon, a former intelligence officer for the United Kingdom. The opposing team was made up of Philip J. Crowley, a former U.S. State Department officer; Stewart A. Baker, a former chief counsel for the National Security Agency; Jeffrey Toobin, an American television and print commentator; and Oxford student Charles Vaughn.

I have been to war. I have seen physical courage. But this kind of courage is not moral courage. Very few of even the bravest warriors have moral courage. For moral courage means to defy the crowd, to stand up as a solitary individual, to shun the intoxicating embrace of comradeship, to be disobedient to authority, even at the risk of your life, for a higher principle. And with moral courage comes persecution.

The American Army pilot Hugh Thompson had moral courage. He landed his helicopter between a platoon of U.S. soldiers and 10 terrified Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai massacre. He ordered his gunner to fire his M60 machine gun on the advancing U.S. soldiers if they began to shoot the villagers. And for this act of moral courage, Thompson, like Snowden, was hounded and reviled. Moral courage always looks like this. It is always defined by the state as treason—the Army attempted to cover up the massacre and court-martial Thompson. It is the courage to act and to speak the truth. Thompson had it. Daniel Ellsberg had it. Martin Luther King had it. What those in authority once said about them they say today about Snowden.

“My country, right or wrong” is the moral equivalent of “my mother, drunk or sober,” G.K. Chesterton reminded us.

So let me speak to you about those drunk with the power to sweep up all your email correspondence, your tweets, your Web searches, your phone records, your file transfers, your live chats, your financial data, your medical data, your criminal and civil court records and your movements, those who are awash in billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars, those who have banks of sophisticated computer systems, along with biosensors, scanners, face recognition technologies and miniature drones, those who have obliterated your anonymity, your privacy and, yes, your liberty.

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