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Hullabaloo


Monday, January 06, 2014

 
Does our system require martyrdom?

by digby

On Ari Melber's new show today (which is quite good by the way) he interviewed Harvard Law professor Yochai Benkler about his call for clemency for Snowden back in November.  It was an interesting exchange, and I think he provided the best response to the administration supporters who insist that Snowden is a coward for failing to "come home" and, presumably, go to jail:
Do we want a system where only martyrs will come forward?
I think that's a good question.  Do we?

I haven't heard anyone evoke Mandela as one of Snowden's proper role models  recently, but I suppose that's because they probably learned about the fact that he didn't volunteer himself for jail but was rather a fugitive for many years before he was caught and thrown to molder in jail for decades. Still he was a martyr. The crimes of which he was accused are quite similar in seriousness and potential penalties to those the US government is leveling at Snowden.  The price could be very steep indeed. And the statutes under which he's been charged would not allow him to speak freely.

We have had martyrs, of course.  Martin Luther King is an example of a great moral hero who was gunned down for his beliefs. But while the authorities hounded him and denied him his civil rights and civil liberties, it didn't have the ability to hold him in jail longer than a couple of weeks for his civil disobedience.  He never faced a long prison term (or worse) at the hands of the government.

There was one American who did and he was the very fellow the Espionage Act of 1917, the statute Snowden is accused of violating, was passed to deal with: Eugene V Debs. I think most people today would consider that case a shocking abuse of government power to silence dissent. There were many calls for commutation, clemency and pardons. At the time Woodrow Wilson wrote:
"While the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization, this man, Debs, stood behind the lines sniping, attacking, and denouncing them....This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration."
He did have his sentence commuted by President Harding not long after.

My point is that demanding people selflessly martyr themselves in order to be respectable seems odd. If you don't think Snowden should done what he did then what difference does it make if he is caught by the authorities or he throws himself on the mercy of the justice system? The act is what the act is. If you think his act revealed something important that the people needed to know about and which will lead to some changes, however temporary,  then I would think you would call for mercy from the government. If you think he's a traitor, then I guess you think he deserves to be locked up for a long time. Our justice system is remarkably flexible in this way --- if we want it to be.

The government makes deals all the time. There's no need for martyrdom in America.

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