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The Conscience of Edward Snowden

In the New York Review of Books, Sue Halpern argues that we should pay less attention to the character of actors like Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald and focus more on the governmental actions they have revealed. Yet much if not most of Halpern’s essay focuses on Snowden and Greenwald themselves, and the paragraph that stands out in Halpern’s essay goes directly to Snowden’s decision to leave the country and evade confronting the U.S. Government in court:

It is here that Edward Snowden’s story begins to sound much like those of Thomas Drake, William Binney, Kirk Wiebe, and Edward Loomis, longtime NSA employees who, a few years earlier than Snowden, attempted to raise concerns with their superiors—only to find themselves rebuffed—about what they perceived to be NSA overreach and illegality when they learned that the agency was indiscriminately monitoring the communications of American citizens without warrants. Binney, Wiebe, and Loomis resigned—and later found themselves the subjects of FBI interrogations. Drake, however, stayed on and brought his suspicions to the office of general counsel for the NSA, where he was told: “Don’t ask any more questions, Mr. Drake.” Frustrated, Drake eventually leaked what he knew to a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. The upshot: a home invasion by the FBI, a federal indictment, and the threat of thirty-five years in prison for being in possession of classified documents that, when he obtained them, had not been classified. After years of harassment by the government and Drake’s financial ruin, the case was dropped the night before trial. It was against this backdrop that Snowden found himself contemplating what to do with what he knew. Stymied by an unresponsive bureaucracy, seeing the fate of earlier NSA whistleblowers, and finding no adequate provisions within the system to challenge the legality of government activity if that activity was considered by the government to touch on national security, he nonetheless set about gathering the evidence to make his case.

For those who would defend Snowden, this narrative is essential. The claim is that the United States now is simply not like the United States of the 1960s and 1970s when Daniel Ellsberg gave himself up after releasing the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg himself has made this argument while defending Snowden, arguing that Snowden and whistleblowers like him simply cannot and should not trust the U.S. government to treat them legally and humanely.

I have in the past defended Snowden’s act of releasing the NSA documents while also arguing that he was wrong to flee, and that in the name of democratic self-government and justice he should have given himself up and fought a public battle for fair and legal adjudication of his actions. In essence, there are times when doing justice requires that one risk one’s own safety:

I fully admit that it is likely that Snowden would have been treated much less generously than was Ellsberg. But aside from the fact that Snowden never gave the courts the chance to treat him justly, his refusal to submit to the law makes it impossible for his act of disobedience to shine forth as a claim of doing justice. He may claim that he acted in the public interest. He may argue that he acted out of conscience. And he may say he wants a public debate about the rightness of U.S. policy. He may be earnest in all these claims. But the fact that he fled and did not “transform the situation in such a way that the law can again operate and his act can be validated,” means that he does not, in the end, “render a service to justice.” On the contrary, by fleeing, Snowden gives solace to those who portray him as a criminal and make it easier for those who would do to discredit him.

The reason Snowden’s actions are important above and beyond the governmental overreach he exposed is that he stands out as one of the few people today who publicly claim to be acting from conscience. For Snowden, it was his conscience that made him aware that someone needed to reveal to the people what our government was doing. Snowden’s actions are important, therefore, as a model of conscientious action in the face of systematic abuses of power. In short, we need to think about Snowden’s actions because we need to think about what it means to act according to one’s conscience.

In a book-length study on Evil and Human Agency, Arne Johan Vetlesen turns to Hannah Arendt and argues the role of the conscience is the underappreciated key to understanding her account of Adolph Eichmann and the banality of evil. Conscience, he writes, “is the thematic fellow-traveler of evil in Arendt’s work from beginning to end.” To substantiate this claim, Vetlesen suggests that Arendt operates with two distinct and opposed understandings of conscience.


The Eichmann Trial (Source: Jewish Currents)

One understanding of conscience, the primary one in the religious and philosophical tradition, is connected to consciousness and thus to a knowing of God or what is right. As Arendt writes in her unfinished and posthumously published Life of the Mind,

Conscience, as we understand it in moral or legal matters, is supposedly always present within us, like consciousness. And this conscience is also supposed to tell us what to do and what to repent; before it became the lumen naturale or Kant’s practical reason, it was the voice of God.

Conscience, as the voice of God, is an ever-present consciousness of right. And the source for this traditional sense of conscience is Augustine, who writes in the Homilies on the First Epistle of John, “Let your conscience bear your witness, for it is of God.” Augustine repeats elsewhere (Tractates of John’s Gospel LXXIV, 5), “Therefore, God is seen in an invisible way. Nor can we have any knowledge of Him unless He is in us. For it is in a similar way that we come to see our conscience within us.” Arendt points us to these lines in her early dissertation Love and Saint Augustine, in which she writes: “Against the security of habit, the law calls on conscience. Conscience is ‘of God’ and has the function of pointing to the Creator rather than to the creature. Since conscience is of God, it lets us refer back directly to the Creator.” If this world is a created world, created by man and filled with the security of habit, the law is heard in the call of conscience, which calls us to an unceasing and unerring god. Thus does Arendt argue that “Conscience directs man beyond this world and away from habituation.” Evil, or wickedness, she writes, is attachment to this world and the attempt to “escape the predetermined harmony of the whole.”


Saint Augustine (Source: Copiosa)

Against this traditional understanding of conscience, Vetlesen rightly argues that Arendt develops another understanding of conscience. “Unlike this ever-present conscience,” Arendt writes in Life of the Mind, there is the conscience that is perennially absent. Her example of the absent conscience is Socrates, explicitly the Socrates from the disputed Hippias Major dialogue, where Socrates “tells Hippias, who has shown himself to be an especially thickheaded partner, how ‘blissfully fortunate’ he is in comparison to Socrates, who at home is awaited by a very obnoxious fellow who always cross-examines him.” This conscience is another person; it is the “obnoxious fellow” Socrates has “left at home.” When Socrates returns home, Arendt reminds us, he is not alone, but he is “by himself,” thus reunited with his conscience, his friend in the Aristotelian sense of an “other self.”

Socrates must live together with this other self, which means, in Arendt’s fertile phrasing, that he and his conscience must “come to some kind of agreement, because they live under the same roof.” It is this other self, the absent self who awaits one at home, that for Arendt serves as a metaphor for conscience. Socrates fears this absent self. The absent conscience waits at home, ready to pounce, to ask, to cross-examine, to question what one has done. Such a conscience is an “after-thought,” Arendt argues, in the sense that it insists that one think about what one has done after doing it, in the confines of one’s home. A conscience makes the home a place of fear and inquisition.

What distinguishes this Socratic ‘absent conscience’ from Augustine’s ‘eternally present conscience’ is that the Augustinian conscience has a direct line to God and tells us what to do. The Socratic conscience, on the other hand, only speaks in the negative. It “fills a man with obstacles” as, for example, when Shakespeare’s Richard III tortures himself with the fear of living with himself as a murderer:

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by:
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly: what! myself from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What! myself upon myself?
Alack! I love myself. Wheretofore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O! no: alas! I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.

Arendt quotes these lines from Richard III to make clear that while the conscience in the Socratic sense scares us and makes us think about what we have done or what we might do, it does not preach. When it works it can, at most, only stop us. Conscience is a negative experience and “unlike the voice of God within us or the lumen naturale, [it] gives us no positive prescriptions (even the Socratic daimôn, his divine voice, only tells him what not to do).” Conscience, as Arendt understands it in the Socratic sense, “’fills a man full of obstacles.’”


(Source: BBC)

Snowden’s work for the NSA seems to have awakened his conscience; it filled him with obstacles. It made him realize that he could neither continue working for the NSA nor simply walk away and allow the government to continue acting in illegal ways unknown to its citizens. I give him the benefit of the doubt that his impetus was from conscience. In this regard, we all have much to learn from Edward Snowden.

One interesting question remains: Why did Snowden’s conscience have nothing to say about his decision to leave the country and avoid the justice system? His answer, and Halpern’s answer, is fear. He was afraid of the consequences, afraid that he might not get a fair trial, and afraid he might be tortured. Sadly, I must admit that his fears are not unjustified.

But conscience hearkens not to fear, but to the absent voice, the other self who waits for one at home. By fleeing justice, Snowden became a lawbreaker and he forfeited his chance to serve as a model of lawful civil disobedience. To ask someone to risk their life in the name of justice is to ask quite a bit. But it is central to the idea of justice that doing justice demands great things. Justice, as opposed to merely following the law, requires risk. And conscience, the no-saying absent task master, is what can, when it is operating well, steel us to risk our safety in the name of doing what he know that we must do.

To say, as Halpern does, that Snowden acted according to his conscience, but then to excuse his decision to become a fugitive and argue we should ignore his character and focus on what his acts revealed, is to mistake the nature and importance of conscientious action. We recall Socrates as a model of conscience action not simply because he asked hard questions in the public sphere, but also because he chose to risk his life in order to convince his compatriots that he had the right to do so. And when he failed, he then chose to lose his life rather than challenge the laws of Athens.

I would hope, of course, that if Snowden had turned himself, in he could have given the public nature of his case and shamed the government into treating him with dignity and legality. I do not know if that would have happened. But Snowden’s choice to flee only confirmed the cynicism and despair so many of us feel about the failure of our constitutional institutions. For that reason, I have to imagine he lives uncomfortably under the same roof with his conscience.

Sue Halpern’s essay is well worth your reading. It is your weekend read. And if you have a hankering for more, pick up Arendt’s Life of the Mind. The section The Two-in-One on Socrates is a masterpiece. You can buy the eBook here.

This post is cross-posted on The American Interest Website.

Posted on 21 June 2014 | 10:52 am

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