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Whistle-blowers

We don’t want to be the victims of terrorism, do we? But is there a possibility which is even worse? What if your government becomes a bigger threat than any likely terrorist? And if we want to protect our society from the threat of anarchy shouldn’t that society have sufficient freedoms so that it is worthy of protection?

What is the point of trying to protect a society where the citizens are spied on by their own government, where injustices cannot be reported, where the “good guys” act worse than the bad? And just how far is it really worth going to protect people from a threat which might or might not really exist, and if it does exist is likely to be a minor problem rather than the major one which is portrayed?

And if the terrorists really dislike the freedoms that the western world possesses (at least in comparison to the despotic, religious regimes in the countries most terrorists come from) is it not a victory for them if those freedoms are systematically eroded away? Would the terrorists not see that as a victory?

Government spying is a hot topic at the moment, especially after the admission from Edward Snowden that he was the NSA Prism leak source. But that is just the latest example of a whistle-blower revealing information which the powers wanted to keep secret. The case of Bradley Manning is still ongoing and there is significant support for him after his leak of sensitive information to Wikileaks.

Are these people heroes or villains? Obviously that depends on your perspective. If you believe that secrecy and extreme tactics are justified in the battle against terrorism then they are clearly villains. But if you take the factors into account which I listed in the first three paragraphs of this post then they are equally clearly heroes.

The problem is that there are many reasons why a government would want to keep different things secret. Some of them are legitimate, such as wanting to keep personal details with no public interest private, or keeping information which can be used against legitimate military or police forces out of enemy hands, or preventing criminal organisations gaining access to information they can use.

But there are many times when governments might want to keep information secret for the wrong reasons too. For example the information might reveal corrupt or dishonest activities by the government or its allies, or it might show where errors have been made which those in power would prefer to cover up rather than correct, or it might show that what the leadership say they are doing and what they are really doing are not the same thing.

I would suggest that many of the leaks are in the second category: they are sources of embarrassment to those in power rather than genuine security threats to society as a whole. So leaking secrets should be looked at on a case by case basis.

If the leak shows that the military of the US has murdered innocent civilians and barely concerned themselves with the mistake then the leaker is a hero, because that is the sort of news the people need to know. They might be prepared to say that is an unfortunate side-effect of war and a sacrifice we need to make for the greater good; but they might also say that the negatives of war outweigh the positives and it should be terminated as soon as possible.

But if the people don’t even know what is happening how can they make that decision? Supposedly we all live in democracies where the general population vote to determine who makes the big decisions, but how is it possible to know how to vote if critical information is hidden?

I think I would rather have a free society with as much as possible out in the open even if there is a slightly greater risk of the enemies of that society using it. And I would rather a few terrorist escape detection (after all, they seem to avoid detection most of the time anyway) rather than have spies poking through the phone records, internet logs, and other data belonging to the people whose liberty they are supposed to be protecting.

Many people say there is nothing to worry about as long as you don’t break the law. But many laws are immoral and breaking them isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And it’s basically up to the government to decide who is acting badly and clearly they don’t always act with the greatest level of honesty and integrity. So everyone is potentially at risk.

And one other thing: we should never be placated by the claim that a spy agency doesn’t spy on its own citizens. First, as we found out here in New Zealand, they spy on whoever they like irrespective of what the law says, and then just change the law to suit; and second, all the agencies cooperate so if the American agencies can’t spy on Americans they will just ask an ally to do it and get the information indirectly. So there’s no escape. We just have to be aware that sometimes our worst enemies are those who claim to be our friends and protectors.

Benjamin Franklin said “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.” Surely this is true. I know there must be some compromise on this and that some surveillance is probably justified but the standard must be far higher than just automatically spying on everyone.

Thomas Jefferson said “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” And surely this is also true. Just because something is lawful doesn’t make it right. A law can be made to cover any situation and anyone who breaks a bad law isn’t a criminal, they are a hero.

So yes, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning are both heroes. Many people see them that way now, but many others don’t. I think in the future they will be almost universally regarded as heroes just as many of the heroes we have today were seen as dangerous subversives in their own time. It’s unfortunate that the truth takes time to reveal itself because until it does those heroes are persecuted by those currently in power.

But I guess it’s just like Edward Abbey said: A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.

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