For US, Big Brother is not the only danger
From what we know so far, Edward Snowden appears to be the ultimate unmediated man. Though obviously terrifically bright, he could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school. He went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton and the Central Intelligence Agency, but he has separated himself from them, too.
Though thoughtful and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: The atomisation of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.
If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: Family, neighbourhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.
This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: The deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organisations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme.
It’s logical, given this background and mindset, that Mr Snowden would sacrifice his career to expose data mining procedures of the National Security Agency (NSA).
But Big Brother is not the only danger facing the United States. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.
This is not a danger Mr Snowden is addressing. In fact, he is making everything worse.
For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret NSA documents, he has betrayed all of these things.
He betrayed honesty and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity. He made explicit and implicit oaths to respect the secrecy of the information with which he was entrusted. He betrayed his oaths. He betrayed his friends. He betrayed his employers. He betrayed the cause of open government.
He betrayed the privacy of us all. If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods.