If the US did manage to capture Edward Snowden, someone I’ve written about many times, including here and here, would it be good for the American public? Perhaps so. It might not be so good for Snowden himself, but for the public, a capture and trial of Snowden would continue to put the spotlight on the US government and intelligence agencies, which many believe have far exceeded their mandate. David Pozen, a law professor, has an interesting editorial on the topic as well, which I largely agree with. My own thoughts concerning Snowden’s options and potential outcomes appear below.
What are Snowden’s options at this point?
He could turn himself in. This might signal surrender, but it would guarantee that he be brought back to the US and face trial rather than potential assassination or exile, and it might be viewed as courageous by the public in the longer-run. He could be acquitted, but he could also face a lengthy prison sentence. He would briefly control his fate, and maybe there’s something to be said for that. He would have a sympathetic audience and could even be exonerated, though I find that highly dubious.
He could live in exile (in Venezuela or some other nation-state not renowned for human rights). Probably not his ideal outcome. He gave up his life as he knew it to blow the whistle on government overreach, but any country willing to give him asylum will be far worse (not from the standpoint of mass surveillance, but from the standpoint of human rights abuses, petty government overreach, and so forth). Still, he’s a celebrity, and so might enjoy celebrity status in a way that leaves him both protected and yet isolated and distrustful of everyone. This option isn’t risk free, as US justice would no doubt seek him out, directly or through proxies. If he’s caught, he might be killed; or if he’s brought in, he might have less sympathy than he would otherwise have if he gave himself up. Facing the accuser could be construed as strength rather than weakness, whereas US capture of Snowden could be a positive light on the US government.
He could kill himself. Martyrdom might be a strategic move, though fear and social isolation would be the real motivation here. He might be exhausted and feeling devoid of true friendships; isolated in the sense that he’s surrounded by strangers but lacking trustworthy confidants. Suicide due to feeling overwhelmed, idolized by many but also hated by some, and apart from all true friends and family.
Personally, I would choose suicide, not that I can imagine being in this situation, but if my mind was transported into his body, the stress would be crippling, the fear pulsating, and the isolation crushing. Having already done “my duty,” I would make my exit. A sense of control would return, only for an instant, and then would be gone indefinitely. The upside? Martyrdom often brings sympathizers, which would benefit the cause, at least for a short time.
My hope is that his courage is greater than mine. Strategically speaking, he can do more good than harm by turning himself in than he could by removing himself from the equation. Public sympathy, Aaron Swartz-style, is helpful temporarily, but forgotten too quickly. Exile is risky, as he could simply be killed (and then forgotten without the sympathy factor) or live in stagnation, the story sporadically focusing on the celebrity rather than the cause.
He’s already released all of the secret documents he’ll ever have access to. That deed is done. Turning himself in and putting the spotlight on himself–but also shining the light on the American agencies that watch over us–is the best option for the public, and perhaps even the best option for him as well. It extends his reach longer than taking his life and more genuinely than exile. Of all the options, it’s the most influential and most likely to inspire other whistleblowers. With suicide, he burns out; with exile, he fades away. Facing justice in the US keeps the fire burning hot for much longer.
It’s a risk no matter how he plays it.