Whoever has only seen Edward Joseph Snowden’s image in passing, listening to TV news or glimpsing it quickly on a website, should take the time and find out more. If you want to have a key to understanding who Snowden is and what significance he has for modern democracies, it is enough to know that he has forever changed the rules that regulate how the planet’s intelligence services function. Snowden, and before him Julian Assange, have taken information available to the select few and made it available to potentially everyone.
In June 2013, Snowden revealed details of the American government’s many mass surveillance programs, programs which involved companies on the level of AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, PalTalk, Skype and Yahoo. Using the international war on terror as a shield, the United States was able to have free access to information on whomever surfed the web — an unacceptable violation of citizens’ rights, and one that Snowden made public through the distribution of documents and a series of interviews with journalists from the British newspaper The Guardian.
However, in trying to understand who Snowden is and what exactly he has done, we are faced with a failing for which there are no loopholes or justifications. It is the failure of democracies that did not welcome him, this exile from the United States; the failure of the media that didn’t protect him, which did not act as the necessary shield for a man who has ruined his life forever in the name of something greater and incomprehensible to many. What made him challenge the United States in this way? I want to answer this question by recounting how Snowden himself claimed he got the courage to expose the greatest ever modern-day violation of rights thanks to video games. Glenn Greenwald, Guardian columnist, wrote: “Video games often confront us with complex ethical dilemmas and stimulate autonomous reasoning, particularly in young people when they begin to question the instruction they receive. The protagonist finds himself face to face with a serious wrongdoing committed by a powerful force and can choose to run away or to fight for what he believes in. Even history shows us that seemingly ordinary people who decide to pursue justice can triumph over the greatest enemies.”*
Snowden decided to denounce the violation in a way that was well and truly revolutionary: He did not condemn things based on ideology, but provided proof, produced evidence. The guerrilla-like counter-inquiries which can be found online even today on extremist websites of every color are founded on generic condemnations of “the system.” There’s no need to have proof: banks, politicians, Americans, entrepreneurs, actors are all criminally guilty just by being capitalists, or Westerners, depending on the point of view. It’s the ideology which passes sentence. In contrast, Snowden disseminated facts within the democratic structure, and not, as his detractors would have it, against or outside of it. He does not have the profile of a revolutionary or terrorist group making up theories. He has proof, bringing to light illegal behavior, unofficial alliances, secret pacts, unmentionable spying.
A few weeks ago, “Citizenfour,” the Edward Snowden documentary by Laura Poitras, won the Oscar for best documentary. “Citizenfour” tells the tale of the specter that is global surveillance through the humanity of its protagonists, on the run in order to protect their freedom. However, before “Citizenfour,” another major documentary, “Snowden’s Great Escape,” not only told the story of Snowden’s escape from the United States to Hong Kong and his stay in Russia, “detained” for a month in a windowless room in the airport’s transit zone, but also revealed much more. It recounted the refusal of Italy, France and the whole of Europe to offer him asylum and protection. It told of an entire continent’s failure, one that calls itself democratic, which for this reason should be obligated to welcome anyone who risks one’s life defending democracy.
*Editor’s note: This quote, although accurately translated, could not be independently verified.