WASHINGTON - Two young men have become the subject of some fascination for their fellow Americans. In very different ways, they illustrate the dangers threatening the country. One of the men is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the terrorist alleged to have killed four people in Boston. The other is Edward Snowden, who revealed publicly the unbelievable degree to which the National Security Agency (NSA) has been monitoring the phone calls and emails of Americans and foreigners alike to prevent exactly the sort of thing Tsarnaev is alleged to have done.
Although unlike in Tsarnaev’s case, Snowden’s involved no violence, his situation is nevertheless bleak. Washington is treating him like an enemy of the state as it is Tsarnaev. But Snowden’s worst fear could well become reality: that his sacrifice was for nothing, that Americans won’t have the courage to change things.
Along with the mood of the country and the current state of its laws, there is the personality of the president that explains the way these cases are unfolding.
Unlike their government, most Americans – independent of their politics - don’t see Snowden as a traitor but rather as a whistleblower who performed a useful act. While left-leaning Americans have always tended to think that the obsession with "national security" was a little suspect, those to the right are also exhibiting a new fascination with libertarian influences. It all adds up to a majority of US citizens who see Snowden as someone who did not want to hurt the country, but serve it.
A cool distance
If he came short of achieving his goal, it is because the NSA’s eavesdropping and spying program was created and run by all three branches of government and on paper at least is legal. This is what accounts for the collective anger about the issue: the government collecting all this data with nobody apparently seeing the need to inform Americans of even the broad outlines of that fact.
The shadow realm that Americans have now discovered makes them uneasy, especially as they are unsure of where it will lead. Many agree that it is a dilemma: on the one side there’s Snowden warning of a loss of freedoms that are part of the country’s most essential values and are espoused with an almost religious fervor. On the other side, the allegations against Tsarnaev: someone able to enjoy such freedoms to their fullest, only to wind up abusing them in the most extreme way imagineable.
One month after Snowden’s revelations, it looks as America fears Tsarnaev more than it respects Snowden. That may seem strange to Europeans, but 9/11 still exercises a powerful influence in this country. That day’s acts of terror brought deep-seated mistrust of the world to the fore, and the recognition that America is vulnerable. So while the grotesque expansion of the security apparatus is cause for fear and alarm in itself, it at least ensures that one can board a plane with some sense of safety.
President Barack Obama has, as with so many other issues, been keeping a cool observing distance from this one. He smoothes over and cosmeticizes, and leaves a great deal unsaid. There are many reasons for this. First of all, he realizes that the issue will only get bigger the more he talks about it. Secondly he’s sticking rigorously to his priorities - domestic reforms – and reserving his authority to deal with those.
But thirdly: Obama has changed since he’s arrived in office. The media tend to show his old election campaign speeches in which he came out forcefully for citizens’ rights. But Obama is no longer running for election: he’s head of state. And as such his attitude sometimes smacks of elitist arrogance. Recently for example he said it made no difference to him if he called Angela Merkel for information or the NSA spied on Berlin: either way, he was the end-user of said information. By that logic, Americans (and the rest of the world) could simply do away with all constitutional guarantees because Obama is the ultimate, good authority.
It is too early for a balance sheet of the pros and cons of Snowden’s revelations. How the courts deal with the various suits that civil rights activists are filing will also play a role in how his action is ultimately evaluated. But he already can claim to his merit the discovery of an antidote to Washington’s secrecy obsession, and the granting to his fellow Americans the option of informed reflection on the proper balance of freedom and security.