The Sad Reason Edward Snowden is Our Generation's Biggest Symbol


Is Edward Snowden a hero?

There is an anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, that best answers that question. It comes from the early years of the Franklin Roosevelt administration, back when the newly-elected president was meeting with labor leaders to address their concerns about the plight of the working class. After pleading their case and sensing that their one-man audience was sympathetic, they asked whether he would take the initiative to fight for their rights. His response:

"I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it."

Flash forward 80 years. In the aftermath of the revelation that the NSA has been using a clandestine electronic surveillance program known as PRISM to spy on ordinary Americans, the outrage has been palpable. It is hard to visit a news website or political message board without seeing progressives and libertarians venting at a federal government that, once again, has disregarded their most basic constitutional rights. Few can argue that those who oppose our government's activities have not been vocal in their protests.

At the same time, while we still know how to complain, we seem to have forgotten how to act.

Bear in mind that the grounds for bold and effective action have rarely been stronger. Regardless of how one feels about the threat of Islamofascist terrorism, the various programs set up over the past dozen years to combat it — from the tenets of the PATRIOT Act to PRISM — are a blatant violation of the rights ostensibly guaranteed to every American. As the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution clearly dictates (and in light of the circumstances I think I am justified in quoting it in full), "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

If we are to protect our constitutional rights, however, it is important that we do more than give public vent to our discontent. Idealistic rhetoric and blood-stirring denunciations may be good for the soul, but unless they are wedded to realistic programs for change, history has shown that they rarely have a meaningful impact on government policies. That is why it's high time we call upon our generation to do two things:

1. Millennials must make our case to our elders.

As a recent Pew Research Center/USA Today poll discovered, 54% of adults believe Snowden should be charged with treason. Although they were split down the middle as to whether the NSA had a right to collect the telephone and internet data of ordinary citizens (48% approving compared to 47% disapproving) and whether the leaks were in the public's interest (49% approving compared to 44% disapproving), the very fact such a schism exists shows that they are at odds with today's young people, 60% of whom believe Snowden's leaks served the public interest. Until our generation inherits the reins of political power in the next decade or two (assuming we haven't abandoned our ideals by then), it is important that we actively work to impart our beliefs to our elders. The mantra should be to "trickle up" - i.e., to communicate as conspicuously and persuasively as possible our dissatisfaction with the status quo. When our grandparents did this, they pressured the government to stop appeasing big business and their laissez-faire enablers and instead use its power to fight for the working class; when our parents did this, they pressured the state to end the Vietnam War and enact legislative protections for African Americans suffering in the segregated South. If our antecedents could effectively act in an era without the internet or cell phones, we have no excuse for failing to do so in our own comparatively easier times.

2. We must organize around the principle of upholding the Fourth Amendment.

While conservatives tend to detest the ACLU and liberals generally harbor comparable sentiments toward the NRA, both organizations are noteworthy for their skill in advocating for the constitutional amendments its members feel need to be championed. Indeed, even when the cases made by these groups are somewhat spurious (for example, as I explained in an earlier editorial, the Second Amendment is not as cut-and-dried as many particularly staunch pro-gun advocates like to claim), few can deny that they are effective in implementing many of their central policy goals. Given the millennial aversion to all things "establishment," it perhaps makes sense that we are reluctant to engage in the grubby wheeling and dealing that comes with organized lobbying. Nevertheless, if we want to achieve our goals, we can't just talk heart; we have to act smart. To use the NRA again as a case in point, we should pay attention to how effective their grassroots politicking, stemwinding, and fundraising (and, admittedly, less savory palm greasing) was at opposing Obama's gun control legislation earlier this year, even measures like requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales which were supported by 91% of the American people. If we want to make a difference, we have to emulate what works.

This brings me back to my opening question: Is Edward Snowden a hero?

Yes, but only because our generation (myself included) has been so conspicuously lacking in heroism.

Even though we didn't know about the PRISM program specifically, we have long been aware of the national security overreaches that have traced at least as far back as 9/11, if not indeed further. Had we talked to others on these matters instead of simply buzzing amongst ourselves, and had we advocated through a lobbying group as effective in protecting the Fourth Amendment as the ACLU and NRA are at protecting the First and Second, it is entirely possible that we wouldn't have needed a Snowden to inform us of a program like PRISM. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the apathy-induced cancer in our civic psyche that allowed PRISM to occur in the first place may never have metastasized in the first place.

Considering that progressives and libertarians have every reason to unite around this issue, and since I opened this piece with a quote from our greatest Democratic liberal president, I can think of no better way of closing it than with an observation from our greatest Democratic libertarian president (as a side note for history buffs, I highly recommend this cute story on Cleveland's advice to a five-year-old FDR):

"A government for the people must depend for its success on the intelligence, the morality, the justice, and the interest of the people themselves."