On 13th July 2013 MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry wrote an open letter to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, asking him to “come on home” to the US to face trial and to end the media discussion about himself in favour of a discussion of what he had revealed.
I found that letter at best naive and at worst self-righteous. Not only does it patronize Snowden, but it also defies its own argument – that we should stop speaking about Snowden and address the behaviours of the US government instead – by joining in the discussion about Snowden. Also, it bespeaks an ignorance or, even worse, disregard of certain facts that I find deeply upsetting. This is why I wrote a reply. The original letter is here and my reply is as follows:
It’s me, Anne. I came across your letter to Edward Snowden and well, wouldn’t you know, here is my idea for you! How about…you think again?
You ask Edward Snowden to come on back to the U.S.A. I can tell from your letter that, just like “Ed”, you’re not super pleased with the government these days – as hardly anyone is (except the government itself, I think). As you say, the information revealed by Edward Snowden raises serious issues about the behaviours of American and world leaders and how they justify and hide their practices from the public. You seem to have understood that. What you don’t seem to have fully grasped is what that same government’s hunt for Edward Snowden implies about its other behaviours and practices. You say it’s time for Edward Snowden to come home and face the consequences of the actions for which he is so proud. Actually, Melissa, the last time I looked the correct preposition that followed the word “proud” was “of” but then, what do I know, right? You see, I think you must be much cleverer than I am because I cannot for the life of me imagine, let alone know, how Edward Snowden must feel about giving up his job, his life in Hawaii, his passport – actually, he did not give up his passport, that was taken from him; another of the government’s behaviours that Edward Snowden and others aren’t really happy with. And yet another, I am sure, is the diversion of Evo Morales’ plane to Austria. Also, Melissa, it’s not just his life in Hawaii Edward Snowden has given up, is it? It’s his entire life. Full stop. Nothing left of it, no going back. Then again, that’s precisely what you are proposing, isn’t it? That he go back?
And maybe your intentions are really based on the belief that if he does, the “level of celebrity” you say he has cultivated will act as protection if he ever finds himself in a U.S. prison, that the Obama Administration will be very careful about how it treats him. Unlike all those other prisoners, you say. But what exactly are you saying, Melissa? Sounds awfully as if you think that by engaging in his, as you call it, Tom Hanks-worthy, border-jumping drama, “Ed” has not only made himself the story but that he has also usurped a place in the limelight by diverting attention away from others who leaked information. I’ve heard this accusation before, together with the one that Edward Snowden praised countries like Russia and Venezuela for “standing against human rights violations” and “refusing to compromise their principles.” These statements were perhaps a little ill-worded on Snowden’s part, I’ll give you that. But aren’t you overlooking the fact that Snowden was referring to a specific situation – his own – and that this is hardly a situation where he can go around biting the hands that offer him help when the US government is so vehemently lobbying to stop him receiving any help at all? Are you forgetting that Edward Snowden initially refused Russia’s offer of asylum and that it was only after the apparent interference of the US government landed him in a catch-22 that he had to reconsider it? I guess, by your reckoning that catch-22 doesn’t even exist; after all, Edward Snowden, as you say, is welcome to come back to the United States to “exercise his right to be tried by a jury of his peers”. I know, you didn’t actually say that (about exercising his right to be tried by a jury of his peers), this was said at the Department of State’s daily press briefing on 12th July, a very interesting read that sheds more light on the government’s actual take on the situation – you should have a look at it; the way in which the Department of State spokesperson avoids any direct answer to the most pressing questions is both very enlightening and deeply upsetting – I think my favourite bit is when she says that they “broadly believe in freedom of speech”. Which brings me to my next question, where do you and your (and “Ed’s”) so-called “peers” even come up with that kind of garbage? What are you thinking?
Melissa, are you really so naïve as to believe that a government that massively spies on its own and the world’s citizens, that pressurizes other governments into refusing Edward Snowden asylum and that, to this day, still hasn’t cashed its promises regarding Guantanamo Bay, is going to be extra special careful about the way they treat him if he returns to the US? Do you really believe there is no threat of him vanishing down some dark hole to enjoy the hospitality of solitary confinement before his trial? Can you really confidently say that that’s impossible, simply because what has happened so far to Edward Snowden is now very much in the public domain?
Well, I suppose, we can only guess the answers to that and I admit that your guess is as good as mine.
Let me ask you something else though; if you find it so upsetting that we’re talking about Edward Snowden, rather than to discuss the question of how much information the US government really has about all of us, then why are you joining in? You’re talking about him yourself. And flight paths between Moscow and Venezuela, and “how much of a jerk Glenn Greenwald is”? You wrote Edward Snowden a letter! What next? A marriage proposal, maybe? If the media’s treatment of the situation annoys you so much and you’d rather be talking about whether the Obama administration is right that Edward Snowden’s leak jeopardized national security, then why are you not talking about that, Melissa? Because have I got news for you, you are the media!
You could be talking about whether accessing and monitoring citizen information and communications is constitutional, or whether the American people should continue to allow a secret court to authorize secret warrants using secret legal opinions.
I can imagine you’d say, “Well, I’ve just openly criticized this! I’ve drawn attention to it! And actually I have talked about other things as well.” But here’s the catch, Melissa: by criticizing it in this way and making Edward Snowden the recipient and focus of your letter and your show, you are in fact re-affirming that this is a subject worth talking about. If you want people to stop talking about it, set an example and start talking about something else. Try to make them focus their attention on other things. You could, for example, start by addressing some or all of the topics listed above (the ones that you reckon are so much more important than Edward Snowden’s fate). You could start by thinking about whether it is in fact not so much Snowden’s “cloak-and-dagger game” that is having real and tangible geopolitical consequences, but the way in which the government responds to the situation. Yes, let’s talk about how, by hunting Edward Snowden like they do – and this is a “29-year-old” hacker (yes, I know he is 30 now but that’s the quote) for whom President Obama was not going “to scramble jets” – the government is trying to throw its own cloak over Edward Snowden’s revelations.
Funnily enough, until his meeting with human rights representatives in Moscow, Snowden had been lying very low whilst the government blundered about to get him, neatly diverting attention towards him and away from what he made public. Yes, let’s talk about what Edward Snowden has revealed. Let’s talk about how he and Glenn Greenwald revealed it as well, shall we? About how Edward Snowden insisted that the information Greenwald made public would be, and would continue to be, thoroughly vetted? Let’s talk about why Edward Snowden is a whistle blower, not a traitor and about why he should be applauded rather than hunted, shunted or put on trial. Let’s talk about the kind of skewered idea of justice that gives rise to the request that he exercise his right to be tried by a jury of his peers. The underlying idea that apparently, somehow, a human being can forfeit their right to free speech or – as is the case in those states that still have the death penalty – life. And while we’re talking about all that anyway, why not also talk about both the US and the UN’s flawed treatment of whistle blowers? Let’s talk about how the government’s hunt for a man who has alerted them to another of those human rights violations you criticize, is causing international incidents and straining U.S. relationships. Really? Important? Relationships? Important for whom? And to what purpose? Because it’s looking increasingly as if the importance of those relationships, for instance with Germany, France, Portugal and the rest of Europe is so heavily tilted in favour of the US that several governments refused Evo Morales’ plane entrance to their airspace, creating an unprecedented diplomatic incident.
I understand that Edward Snowden doesn’t want to come back to the US. Even though I could imagine that he may be quite homesick (although this is pure conjecture because I am not anywhere near as knowledgeable about other people’s feelings as you seem to be). But I do in fact hope he never does. Because, as you say, to do so would mean giving up his freedom, potentially his human rights, perhaps even his life, to be held, like so many others, in solitary confinement, perhaps for years, perhaps indefinitely, despite the fact that solitary confinement is cruel and psychologically damaging. Do you really think, Melissa that a man who has been stuck in diplomatic limbo for weeks because the government revoked his passport and leaned on other governments to refuse him protection might not have anything to worry about? That, ultimately, he is really so much unlike all those other prisoners?
Come on, Melissa. Stop writing silly letters to Edward Snowden and then maybe, just maybe, you will be the one who makes people talk about, you know, something else.