Government surveillance is a public service; E. Snowden is a self-serving traitor.
Government surveillance is evil; E. Snowden is a heroic champion of our individual freedoms and dignity.
The truth may well lie somewhere between two poles. At least if you acknowledge that we conduct healthy societies and polities in the tension between ideals of perfect security and perfect freedom, perfect harmony and a Hobbesian state of nature, imperatives of the collective good and those of individual self-expression.
Like it or lump it, feel as indignant as you like, this is the human condition. We live our lives in that tension, always for better or worse at any given time, approaching one pole till contrary forces swing the pendulum back towards the opposite pole, and then back again. For your average citizen — unless you’re currently engaged in the business of either storming barricades or erecting them — the trick may lie in recognizing this and relaxing a bit.
From this perspective Snowden and the NSA are merely fulfilling roles in a perennial drama, like re-enactments of some myth of the origin. Except that it would be nice to think that, however slowly, the larger historical plot is gradually approaching some more ideal situation. Though this approach itself, fated never to arrive, is probably the best we’ll ever manage as individuals or collectives.
In any case, governments and security agencies are never going to be able to do their jobs without secrecy and without cutting ethical and moral corners from time to time. I believe that is simple fact. Though it doesn’t mean they should be given carte blanche to carry on as they will. These operations will always (one hopes) be opposed by civil libertarians who appeal to laws and individual rights. Where their activities break the law, they’ll have to face the consequences (which may even include changes to the law). Sometimes, as with Snowden, their activities will cause much inconvenience and real damage to government operations and, arguably, to the country as a whole.
At the same time, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, modern communications technology and the prevailing politics of fear arguably entail a totalitarian logic, and may well incite ever-more radical attempts to thwart concomitant social and political developments. (Whoa. That’s a mouthful.)
Might this in part explain Snowden’s motives? Glenn Greenwald’s Guardian interview indicates it does.
The drawing is from the excellent website xkcd.