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Edward Snowden: Traitor by What Definition?

It’s now an undisputed fact, in the minds of our esteemed government officials: Edward Snowden, the man who exposed the U.S. government for spying on private, law-abiding citizens, is a traitor.


Exactly how did this label get smuggled in to the whole controversy about Mr. Snowden? And why is nobody talking about it?

I looked up “traitor” in the dictionary. Here’s the most common definition I found:

“Traitor: One who betrays another’s trust or is false to an obligation or duty.”

Is that what Snowden is? I don’t see it.
As I see it, the U.S. government has a solemn responsibility to uphold individual rights—not to blatantly violate rights, and then punish those who expose them for it. I don’t know about you, but I consider keeping an electronic file of every phone record—and who knows what else—on every private U.S. citizen to be a violation of individual rights.

Not only does it violate both the spirit and the letter of the U.S. Constitution; it violates any notion of law going back centuries before the Constitution. For example, there’s something called “due process.”

Due process goes back to the Magna Carta, also known as The Great Charter of the Liberties of England. Among other things, due process upholds the idea that objective law—not the “monarch” or the arbitrary whim of any government—overrides the rationalizations of law enforcement officials.

Put in twenty-first century terms, due process means: Just because terrorism is a genuine danger, it doesn’t mean the government may do anything it pleases, at any time it wishes, while rationalizing that it’s all for the sake of fighting terrorism.

Just as the police can’t search your house without a warrant, the federal government cannot—without due process of law, warranting a criminal investigation—simply take your phone and computer records, without your knowledge and consent.

Edward Snowden exposed, at the very least, the Constitutional and due process injustices of the Patriot Act, the bill politicians in both parties use as rationalization for doing whatever they wish. At the very worst, Snowden has provided evidence suggesting that the U.S. government is violating the individual liberties and Constitutional rights of American citizens.

I don’t call this treason.

Treason, based on the definition I found, refers to betraying an obligation. An obligation is something to which one voluntarily consents, and is rational by definition. The kind of approach to liberty and individual rights upheld both by the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution is rational. By “rational” I mean: it objectively preserves order, and allows people to freely pursue commerce and personal happiness. If I’m not mistaken, Snowden, as a high security government employee,  was obliged to uphold that Constitution in performing his job. He arguably did so, at great cost to his own well-being, by exposing the glaring contradictions between present/recent government activities and that very Constitution he’s obliged to uphold.

For an American citizen to be guilty of treason, it would mean he’s spying on behalf of a foreign enemy. In the days of the Cold War, treason referred to leaking secrets to the Soviet Union, or one of its allies. In the days of World War II and Word War I, treason referred to providing information or assistance to the fascist state of Germany. These governments were openly hostile threats to the United States, and it was proper to call any American citizen who aided them a traitor.

I don’t see how we get to the concept “traitor” when a government employee exposes wrong actions of the U.S. government against its own citizens. Take a more obvious example. Let’s say a government employee discovered the U.S. government was poisoning black people; or gay people. If such activity were exposed, I don’t think we’d call the person exposing it a “traitor.” And I don’t think many of us would listen when the government replied, “Well, we’re just trying to protect you from terrorists.”

The government’s activity in the present situation is easier to rationalize in the name of fighting terrorism. “If we don’t allow the government to spy on us and do other things inconsistent with the Constitution, and inconsistent with due process, then the terrorists will kill us.” So in order to defend our liberties against the threat of tyrants and terrorists we’re going to … sacrifice all our basic liberties. Exactly how does this make sense?

The only basis for calling Snowden a “traitor” is quietly accepting the premise that if the U.S. government does it, then by definition it’s right. Interestingly, people who opposed the same kinds of policies when done by the Bush administration happily support them when done by the Obama administration. This should tell you something right there: The people now supporting these policies understand that they’re not really about protecting us from terrorists. If they were, then they would support these policies of spying on private citizens regardless of the administration doing it.

I continue to be astonished by America in the early twenty-first century—and not in a good way. Edward Snowden runs for his life around the globe, branded a “traitor” for exposing policies of our own government, policies of which large numbers disapprove. How can you disapprove of what the government is doing, and yet call Snowden a traitor?

America was founded on the principle of individual rights. Now it appears those who uphold individual rights most consistently are the ones who must seek asylum … from the American government itself.

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