On an unusual gloomy Saturday morning in Honolulu I was lucky to attend a (video) conference with Edward Snowden who called in from Moscow. The event was hosted by ACLU Hawaii and all 800 seats sold out in advance. The demographic was mainly older (60+) but with a handful of younger curious onlookers, activists and journalists. The moderator Aviam Soifer joked that he knew that some homeland security and other intelligence agents were in attendance but that they had to pay their $5 cover like everyone else and sit idly by while their most wanted man spoke to us in (virtual) person. It’s the kind of humor that flies really well in Hawaii – equality, absurdity and aloha. It’s a fine mix.
The event opened by showing the academy award nominated documentary CitizenFour so that everyone who hasn’t followed the Snowden story obsessively could be on the same page. It’s a really great documentary – emotional and human with the urgency of an international spy thriller. Snowden especially comes across as composed, a man on a mission, but infused with plenty of humanity. He never wavers in his values. And he still doesn’t, according to the thoughts he later shared with us.
Here is the conversation as it was broadcasted live on Hawaiian TV and a nice Civil Beat/Twitter recap.
Snowden is getting pretty used to these web dialogues (they actually used Google Hangout, for those interested in nerdy details like that.) The whole set up is a propagandist’s wet dream, with Ed’s face looming over everyone magnified x100, but to be fair that is the only way to conduct these talks. But the Wizard of Oz feeling doesn’t disappear – his words take on enormous importance, even when I thought his legal adviser Ben Wizner made his points more succinctly.
In my opinion, the most relevant observation Snowden made was about activists vs the state. That’s really what this whole thing boils down to – if the government is running rampant, ignoring the constitution completely, then activists have no other choice than to operate outside the law to promote true democracy. It shouldn’t be the activists’ burden to protect themselves against the government that spy on their citizens. Activists have to tirelessly work to CHANGE government – not work hard to always stay one step ahead using encryption, which is an exercise in futility, considering the government agencies budgets and technology. He also called out private corporations here, which he feels share some of the responsibility to protect their customers against invasive governments. But like we have seen here in the US, corporations like Google and Apple have only been happy to bend over backwards to give government agencies full access to their customers. This is a multifaceted problem, and Snowden is absolutely right when he says the burden of changing the entire system cannot fall on individual activists and consumers alone. They are the least powerful in this situation, but if the majority of them come together there can be enough pressure on organizations to change.
Because that’s the thing. Even after all the bullshit Snowden has witness and gone through, he is still, if I can reclaim this word from the right-wing lunatics for a moment, a genuine patriot at heart. He believes in democracy and the constitution. He is not a radical by any stretch of the imagination. He still believes that the system can reform itself. His act of civil disobedience came from a deep love of the country he was born into and served to the best of his ability. It was only when he realized that the rules had changed internally, while still giving lip service to the public about freedom and democracy, he felt a moral obligation to act. I don’t personally agree with his hope for true democracy, I believe this capitalistic system has run its course and if we don’t switch to something new fast it will devour itself and destroy the whole world, but I admire this man and his will to act on his moral convictions in a responsible, non-violent way. I admire him very much for risking everything for the truth.
They also talked about how there is no fair trial for Snowden in the current US justice system. The people who call for him to “come home and face the charges” should know that in reality what they are asking for is for Snowden to spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement (classified as torture by the UN.) The law under which he is charged is an eroded and archaic law from 1918 called the Espionage act, aimed to prosecute government spies who reveal government secret to foreign governments. Snowden is a citizen who took vital information to responsible journalists under the first amendment. He could have just dumped and released all the information online to total chaos but he wanted the information vetted through professional journalists to remove any bias he may have had as an information analyst.
“There is civil good in law breaking. If people did not break the law, the American revolution would have never happened. If people did not break the law, slavery would still be in place. Lawbreaking is one of the most important means of progress.” – Edward Snowden
Snowden talks a lot about government and surveillance. Balancing the government’s desires against the needs of citizens . As a systems thinker I get very frustrated when such important issues are being handled in a vacuum. He never talks about banks or corporate interests that supersede national borders, trash the environment and keep entire countries in absolute poverty. He is an expert on one thing, and after some soul searching I have to admit I like that. If he had opinions on everything under the sun, he would be taken less seriously and he can’t afford that in his position. He is a fascinating and complicated man who reveals very little about himself, and in this tabloid existence that can be frustrating, but he stands tall in his convictions. When asked if he had any regrets he said that he only regretted taking so long to stand up. He is part of history now, and these are historic times. It doesn’t feel like that on a day to day basis, but did it ever, to anyone?
“We need to seize the truth. Take it out of the darkness and bring it to the light. The government broke the law. No matter how many governments there are… we can say that there are more of us than them. We can win.”
His final words were met with thundering applause that made his computer back in Russia shake.
Art at the Hawaii Convention Center: For the adventurers; not to be mistaken for travelers for travelers know where they are going. Adventurers go into the unknown.