‘Hero’ and ‘Traitor’ Are Not the Only Options

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Hero? Traitor? Lover? Sinner? Plays his music in the sun.
Hero? Traitor? Lover? Sinner? Plays his music in the sun. Photo: The Guardian

Is Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor? Everyone seems to want to know. And we totally understand why politicians and other notable people are being asked to choose — you're getting a strong headline either way. 

But it's a bullshit choice. Sure, one could argue that Snowden is a hero: He sacrificed his own freedom to unmask an out-of-control government surveillance regime that threatens the freedom of everyone else. You can also make a case for Snowden as a traitor: He gave away secrets that will make it easier for America's enemies to succeed. 

But there's also plenty of room for nuance between those two poles. You could say, for example, that Snowden did the wrong thing but with the best of intentions. If Snowden's goal was to hurt America, there were better ways to do it. He could have sold his secrets to the Chinese. Snowden gave them to reporters. And, if you take his words at face value, his motivation is protecting America's core values, not opening the country up to terrorism. 

Or: Snowden kick-started an important debate, one that we couldn't have had without him, but some of the information he leaked will make the country less safe. Hero? Eh, not quite. Traitor? Hardly. 

Or: Snowden is a true patriot, but it was so mean what he did to his girlfriend.

The point is that, broadly, the choice between security and privacy is a complicated one — even more so in this particular case, since many facts about the NSA remain shrouded — and it's okay to have complicated feelings about it. Even Rand Paul, arguably the nation's foremost cheerleader for civil liberties, told Charlie Rose this morning that he's "reserving judgment on Mr. Snowden." Of course, there's also the strong possibility that Paul has a shrine to Snowden in his living room and simply doesn't want to alienate half the country