Edward Snowden and the High Price of Civil Disobedience

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 24 2013 5:22 PM

Edward Snowden and the High Price of Civil Disobedience

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Protesters in Hong Kong support Edward Snowden

Photo by PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

While Edward Snowden’s on the lam from espionage charges, the case that he’s just a dodgy traitor seems to be growing. Rather than an upright practitioner of civil disobedience, he’s being portrayed as a coward who hid out in a Hong Kong hotel feasting on pizza and Pepsi.

Take, for instance, Nick Cohen from the Spectator, who proclaims, “If you run, you look like a coward. ... There is nothing wrong with taking the cowardly course, unless like Edward Snowden, you claim to be engaged in civil disobedience.” Cohen then leans on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” to declare that Snowden should face his punishment like a real dissident would.

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Here’s the thing, though: Practicing civil disobedience is too damn hard now. The consequences of letting Johnny Law arrest you so that you can have your symbolic day in court—where you can take on the judicial monster face-to-face—are often too high.

That paragon of civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau, spent only one day imprisoned for not paying a poll tax and then spun the story into an essay on the topic that enjoys a distinguished place in the canon of American political thought. Even the great MLK faced relatively short sentences for his acts of civil disobedience, with the longest being 14 days

Snowden, on the other hand, who has also revealed terrible abuses of civil liberties, will suffer a much more severe penalty if he turns himself in. When questioned about Snowden, Sen. Rand Paul told Sean Hannity last week, “Some [civil disobedients] only had to serve like one day in jail. Martin Luther King served 30 days in jail. [Snowden] may be looking at life in prison. So, there's a question. People are saying, ‘Oh, he ought to just come home,’ but I don't know if that's a good or bad idea if he's facing life in prison.” As it stands he’s actually looking at 30 years in total if the espionage charges remain the same—which is still a hefty sentence.

Paul may not always be the voice of sanity, but he’s right here. It’s easy to pass moral judgment on Snowden’s odyssey, but he’s not facing a short stint in jail after a speedy trial. To get an idea of what Snowden is staring down, we can just look at the case of WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning. He was held for two years without trial (and, by some accounts, tortured) for releasing classified document. In March 2012, the Guardian reported that “the UN special rapporteur on torture has formally accused the US government of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment towards Bradley Manning.”

If he turns himself in, Snowden will surely get a spot in the Manning suite—solitary confinement with mandatory “room service” provided by government officials—if he’s captured. Snowden could be treated differently since, unlike Manning, he wasn’t in the military when he leaked documents. However, the spectacle he has made of the U.S. government, in addition to his time spent in China and Russia, won’t go unpunished if they get their hands on him.

And then there’s the case of journalist Barrett Brown. In 2011, with the help of Anonymous, Brown publicized emails from security and intelligence contractors for the government—like Palantir, HBGary Federal, and Snowden’s former employer Booz Allen Hamilton—that revealed their plot to jointly launch cyber attacks against groups like Anonymous. They also wanted to silence journalists like Glenn Greenwald. For Brown’s role in shining light on these shady plans, he’s looking at a combined sentence of more than 100 years in federal prison.

If Snowden were sure to receive a fair, just trial, he might not have chosen to embark on his journey around the world, from hideout to hideout, potentially sharing more valuable secrets with countries that America isn’t on the best of terms with. The way whistle-blowers are persecuted now, though, leaves little reason to believe Snowden would enjoy such treatment.

Yes, Snowden could walk with head held high into federal custody. But it’s not clear that this would do much of anything besides ensure that the rest of his life is hell.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jathan Sadowski is a graduate student studying applied ethics and the human and social dimensions of science and technology at Arizona State University.