It seems odd but predictable that no one in the mainstream has yet floated the idea that Edward Snowden could be both traitor and hero simultaneously. The headlines all ask: “Is Snowden a Hero or a Traitor?” or some variation on that theme.
It would seem that the two terms are mutually exclusive – that they cannot both be true at the same time – but this appearance only holds true when judgments of the facts are offered only in the scope of a single context. Of course, people act in more than one context simultaneously.
A simple example demonstrates what I mean. When I take my kitchen trash to the curb, I’m not only acting as a member of my household, but also I’m acting as a member of my neighborhood. After all, if my house becomes a danger to public health, the public is affected along with my family.
There will be times when actors in different contexts have conflicting aims, such that doing right by the folks in one context necessarily is doing wrong by the folks in another.
Consider the case of Snowden. I’m not sure whether the information he released about NSA wiretapping was harmful to U.S. state interests, but it’s reasonable to assume that it is. The interests that are harmed surely include damage to the state apparatus itself (if the people act through their elected representatives, it will be weakened), but also to the people living in the state (who have, to some extent, been protected by the surveillance program). Simultaneously, though, he may have helped his fellow citizens by making them aware that their supposed right to privacy was being violated with impunity and in the most terrifying way we’ve come across yet. In fact, the 4th amendment might as well have been put into place to stop the kind of surveillance under consideration here. If we take the right to privacy as seriously as seems appropriate, then what Snowden did for the people was indeed heroic.
Put another way, Snowden (and others like him) might have done right by the people and wrong by the government. This is not to issue a moral judgment regarding whether Snowden’s actions were good or bad – justified or unjustified. I think it’s worth taking note that it seems a troubling sign that, at least in this case, what’s good for the people is bad for the state.