This month’s article is from the “too scary to think about” file. One problem with this particular genre is that it leads most people into shutdown or mindless diversion mode just when what’s most necessary is to stay awake and pay attention. These days, it’s a thick file. Everything we hear about of any relevance tends to be so overwhelming that one’s nervous system goes into overload.
This is a fundamentally spiritual issue. I say this recognizing that most definitions of spiritual ignore politics and social justice issues, though what I mean is that how we respond to difficult situations has everything to do with one’s relationship to existence, and one’s relationship to truth. That is spiritual if anything is.
Recently we learned that federal agencies are still spying on our e-mail, phones, and credit card statements. Under the new, improved version of the New World Order, headed by a constitutional lawyer—Barack Obama—the administration went to the FISA court to get approval for its plans to, once again, spy on everyone and everything. Under the new, improved Internet, that meant direct access to the servers of Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and 50 other services that we use all the time.
The story began with the revelation last week that Verizon was handing over phone records to the NSA. We were told that these were just the records of calls, not the content of the calls. On Thursday, I spoke with William Schaap, who was my editor at Covert Action Quarterly, and he explained that phone records are a lot more meaningful than they may seem on the surface.
He has had people from the NSA explain to him that just based on someone’s calling record, their whole life pattern can be discerned: What time they wake up, when they go to bed, who they talk to and for how long, how much alcohol they drink (repeated one-digit misdials are considered evidence of being drunk), and many other details even before there was GPS capability on telephones. The Internet and the ubiquitous use of credit cards has multiplied the government’s surveillance capacity.
Acts of Conscience
As sometimes happens these days, one person, a former NSA contractor named Edward Snowden, had documents exposing the behavior of the government and was willing to risk his life to come forward and tell us what was happening. Snowden was working under the NSA for a company owned by the Carlyle Group—the Bush family business. He didn’t have a formal education (his highest degree was a GED). He was one of those people who is a born “IT genius,” in the words of a close friend of his who I saw interviewed.
Snowden gave up his cushy $200,000-a-year job, a loving, hotter-than-hot girlfriend, and a life in Hawaii to exile himself in Hong Kong. He understands that he could be “rendered” by the CIA; that is, abducted and taken to a secret location and tortured, face life in solitary confinement, or even the death penalty. He did all of this to get the truth out and put it to the American people to decide what they want to do with this knowledge.
Snowden joins the ranks of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Tim DeChristopher as people willing to personally intervene not just with a protest or a statement but by exposing the truth or stopping injustice.
It’s interesting that some talking heads on the left and the right are defending the surveillance; some are calling Snowden crazy, a glory seeker, delusional, a liar, and a traitor—only occasionally referencing the possibility that what he did was an act of conscience. I have no reason to believe that he’s someone other than who he says he is. As John Steinbeck noted, the truth occasionally gets into the newspaper.
As far as I can tell, Snowden saw something happening that he knew was wrong, and was willing to give his life for his country. One common theme of both Manning’s trial and that of DeChristopher is that they were not allowed to use a defense that demonstrated that what they did was an act of conscience. It’s as if conscience itself is being prohibited—one’s individual right, privilege, and authority to distinguish right from wrong, and act on that determination.
If we’re not supposed to be surprised that the surveillance is happening, the American government should not be so surprised that people have been willing to give their lives to stop it, given the hundreds of thousands of patriotic people who have been willing to risk life, limb, irradiation, brain trauma, and psychological damage by going to Afghanistan and Iraq.