Nick Cohen

Edward Snowden shouldn’t play the coward

Edward Snowden shouldn't play the coward
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If you run, you look like a coward. It may be that you have good reason to be cowardly. It may be that anyone else in your position would run as far and fast as you do. There is nothing wrong with taking the cowardly course, unless like Edward Snowden, you claim to be engaged in civil disobedience.

It is an easy claim to make in theory but hard to live up to in practice. Genuine civil disobedience is one of the toughest forms of protest there is. You decide a law is unjust – which in Snowden’s case means you decide that blanket surveillance by the US authorities affronts rights to privacy. You break the law and then…you must wait for the police to arrest you, and defend your actions in court.

I am sure you can see why civil disobedience is a hard road. First, it can only work in free or half-free societies. Protestors attract publicity for their cause by breaking the law. If they live in a society with no free media, where the secret police can take them away in the middle of the night without anyone knowing, there is no point in breaking the law. No one will learn of their protest, and nothing will change.

But the hardest part of civil disobedience is that you must respect the law as you break it and face the consequences of your actions. I do not mean that you meekly go to prison. Rather you use your trial to expose the injustice of the law. Accepting arrest is therefore an essential part of the protest. It shows that you are a moral man or woman, rather than a common criminal, and allows you to take your campaign to the courts, even though the court may send you to prison.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which is far more inspiring to my mind than his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King explained the principles of civil disobedience.

In 1963, when the police arrested King, Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the most racist cities in America. It had no black police officers, firefighters, sales clerks in department stores, bus drivers, bank tellers or store cashiers. White supremacists had organised 50 bomb attacks since the end of the Second World War to keep the blacks in their place, and the police had never arrested the perpetrators.

The Civil Rights Movement responded with boycotts, sit-ins and peaceful demonstrations. The cops took King to jail. While he was in prison, he received a letter from “moderate” white clergymen, who accused him of inflaming tensions and preferring confrontation to negotiation.

King’s reply is a beautiful piece of political argument, which quotes Socrates and the Bible in his defence. He insists that his decision not to run away but to stand and face his accusers shows the moral worth of the Civil Rights Movement.

You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

His critics accused him of undermining respect for the rule of law. King replied that he was not advocating anarchy, and his willingness to go to prison and defend himself from the dock proved it.

“One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust. and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

Snowden has not followed King’s example. He fled to Hong Kong, and the Chinese authorities helped him. The same authorities that preside over a miserable combination of socialism and capitalism, which denies rights to trade unions and, naturally, to Chinese journalists, who want to expose their secret state. He then moved to Moscow, where Putin’s mafia regime, silences and on occasion murders journalists. Today he may be off to Ecuador, whose record on free speech is dismal, or perhaps he will go instead to Cuba, a decaying Brezhnevian dictatorship run by a monarchical communist gerontocracy, or perhaps he will stay in Moscow with his new allies in the oligarchy.

There is a good argument that Snowden’s tour of the world’s dictatorships does not matter in the slightest. The journalist’s claim that the powerful always try to “shoot the messenger” has become a cliché because it is true. Governments want to make the reporter or the whistleblower the “real story” to distract attention from embarrassing revelations. It is a ridiculous exercise that no reader should fall for. The whistleblower might be a drug addict and political extremist, who revels in paranoid fantasies and is cruel to his wife to boot, but so what? The facts he reveals are everything. His character is an irrelevance.

But in cases involving national security maybe character does count for something. The US authorities will now be able to point to the disgusting states Snowden has gone to for sanctuary, and say that these are the very regimes its spies are seeking to contain. Rather than exposing secrecy, in other words, Snowden may be providing a justification for it. Rand Paul, a libertarian US politician who is no friend of the state bureaucracy, has already said, "I do think for Mr. Snowden, if he cozies up to the Russian government, it will be nothing but bad for his name in history."

I accept it is easy for a journalist sitting in safety in London to urge others to be brave. But the point remains that if you run away your chances of arousing “the conscience of the community” decline. Just as Martin Luther King could not have won civil rights for blacks if he had imitated the tactics of the Ku Klux Klan, so Edward Snowden cannot endorse regimes whose human rights’ records are worse than the record of the United States and expect to win the argument.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

Topics in this articleSociety