I got slammed in rapid succession with several bits of shameful (national) news today, and it has made me a little pensive.
There was the “Google Pressure Cookers and Backpacks” thing that happened on Long Island and got all over Facebook. There’s an article on the arrogance and unaccountability of prosecutors in our legal system. There’s the ongoing twin travesties of Edward Snowden in Russia, and the Bradley Manning trial. Then there was an article on corporation-funded character assassination of scientists and other “dissidents” who complain about poisons of various sorts dumped into public water supplies.
Of course, the shame in this is only a result of my expectations, which are — like everyone else’s — quite unrealistic.
After all, what on earth makes me think I have any right to peek into “forbidden topics” on the Internet? Even if those “forbidden topics” happen to be as mundane as shopping for a backpack on the Internet the same day your wife was looking for a new pressure cooker.
In any given week, I may have done research into witchcraft, nuclear decay rates, Medieval poisons, the incidence of infant exposure in late Roman society, budget figures for Social Security, famous composers of the period from 1822 to 1902, sexual habits of the bonobo, megatonnage of Fat Man and Little Boy, chronologies of abbots in Milan from 1420 to 1498, the list goes on and on. My NSA profile sure doesn’t look like a typical guy picking up baseball statistics and looking for a little skin on the Web. I’m sure they have me flagged as something; God alone knows what.
Half the things I’ve read about in the last year would have been sufficient to get me burned alive in sixteenth-century Spain — just for reading about them. Half of them (probably a different half) would have won me a ticket to the gulags in the twentieth-century Soviet Union — just for reading about them. Knowledge has always been a dangerous thing; it’s always been the case that people who peek under the wrong rugs tend to vanish.
It’s merely an expectation on my part that the twenty-first century United States is any different from Inquisition Spain or Stalinist Russia. Of course, it’s an expectation that was drilled into my head since I was old enough to understand words, but still, it’s just an expectation; apparently, an increasingly false one.
So when it comes to people like Snowden and Manning and the corporate whistleblowers, while I’m deeply sympathetic to their plight, it’s clear that they blundered. Their blunder was exactly the same as mine: unrealistic expectations.
They thought that United States law and custom would offer them safe haven. They didn’t get the memo.
Now, Bradley Manning is going to rot away the rest of his life in jail, and Edward Snowden is our first public refugee seeking asylum in, of all places, Moscow.
Moscow. The irony is almost unbearable.
I grew up on Boris and Natasha and Fearless Leader. I think of all those films I watched through the 1980’s and 1990’s, where the terrified dancer or pianist or mathematician made their desperate bid to escape the silencer-equipped goons from the KGB, finally escaping to freedom inside the US Embassy in Moscow or East Berlin or some other Godless Communist hell-hole of a country. I think of the high-profile refugees who actually came over from the Soviet Union during my lifetime, such as Mikhael Baryshnikov, or the defectors from the KGB like Stanislav Levchenko.
[I just Googled all this for accuracy, so now the NSA doubtless thinks I’m a Soviet mole interested in nuclear witchcraft — whatever that might mean.]
It’s more than just a little mind-bending to me to think that when you piss off the NSA, you run to Russia for safety. We’ve dropped through the looking glass, into a place where everything has been reversed.
Here’s the lesson from this: when you piss off Power of any sort as an individual, you need to seek shelter under another Power.
That’s always been true: it’s never been otherwise. But for a long time — by which I mean throughout my lifetime — the mythology in this country has been that The People, aided by The Press, represented a Power. Watch or read any suspense thrillers put out during the last 30 years. The fear of every would-be tyrant buried within the labyrinthine US Government has been fear of exposure. The story always ends when the bad guys’ misdeeds are brought to light: to the press, to The People, and thence to justice. Fade in triumphant music, cut to credits.
I don’t think that has ever been true. If it ever was true, it certainly is no longer true. That’s the memo that Manning and Snowden missed.
Manning exposed “state secrets” that involved coverup of heinous crimes by the US military. He’s going to jail for life. The criminals he exposed may get their wrists slapped, maybe even spend a short time in jail. The Powers he embarrassed will be — well, mildly embarrassed. For about fifteen minutes, until the next news cycle pushes the whole thing into obscurity.
Snowden exposed “state secrets” that involved a US-led spy ring focused on US citizens living ordinary lives on US soil, citizens who Googled pressure cookers and backpacks and subsequently got questioned by the police about their ethnic background. He’s had to flee to Moscow, and he’ll never be able to return to the US: he’s now in permanent exile. The NSA spy-ring will keep operating without so much as a hiccup. The Powers this embarrassed — well, it’s another fifteen minutes out of a day. Ho-hum.
At the moment, I’m in a large crowd of people who range from resigned to incandescently furious about all this. I tend more toward the resigned end. I think the Powers have bigger things to worry about, so I don’t really think I’m going to piss them off with my little commentary. Not today. If I did think that, I’d probably just keep quiet.
However, I’m starting to think that day isn’t very far off.