It was the summer of 1970. The room was stale, dark and seemingly unimportant. The hum of a copy machine in the corner is all that breaks the tense silence. The gentle glow of the machine illuminates the worried face of Daniel Elsberg as he watches what would become the Pentagon Papers shoot out the other end.
Months later, Elsberg’s worries would be confirmed as he awaited trial for treason.
The sounds of distant explosions rock the base, shifting loose sand and grout, creating a halo of dust in an unforgiving den of destruction. The mortars fire constantly, aimed at distant insurgents; it is an ever-present reminder of nearly a decade at war with a relentless enemy. A message pops up on a desktop computer within the fort, Pfc. Bradely Manning smirks at the message. Bradass87: if you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months, what would you do? Manning eagerly waits for the reply from his recipient, the hacker and Wikileaks confidant, Adrian Lamo. Lamo replied: I know what being in a little room having U.S. Code & its consequences explained to you by people who don’t smile is like.
So too would Manning, sitting in solitary confinement for releasing US war abuses in the Middle East. He is presently on trial, the outcome looks grim.
He smoothly flattened out his grey dress shirt, nervous, thousands of miles from home. He sits now in a hotel room, a camera bearing down on him with an accusatory glance. He takes a glass of water, and swallows hard. The water doesn’t sit well, nothing sits well right now. He doesn’t even know if he will live to see tomorrow, he doesn’t know if he will ever see home again. He knows they’re after him… He finally gathers the courage to speak up to the camera before him: My name is Ed Snowden, I’m 29 years old. I worked for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for NSA in Hawaii. Glenn Greenwald, a reporter for the Guardian, proceeds to ask him more questions about why he is releasing the NSA program’s details, and going on the record as the source. I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model Snowden said to Greenwald.
Presently Snowden awaits asylum in countries who are far from Democratic; countries with a history of violent revolution, human rights abuse and voter oppression. His options ran out quickly, sitting in a Moscow airport wondering which despotic third world nation would spit in the face of US foreign-policy manipulation and accept his request for political asylum. He still awaits the grant of asylum from one such nation, Venezuela. On July 10, 2013, that deadline past without any word from the Latin American nation, long considered a formidable US foe since the days of Hugo Chavez.
We like to think we would do the same as these men. Overwhelming public support for these men’s actions confirm they have acted on heroic principle. 55% support Snowden according to a recent poll. That same poll noted only 34% considered him a traitor to the US. Elsberg’s actions today are regarded in law schools and political science programs across the nation as being fundamentally important to our democracy and First Amendment. His actions alone gave way to one of the most important Supreme Court cases on the First Amendment in our history. Bradley Manning’s leaks have shown the horror’s of war and that even the United States is not to be free from the oversight of human rights monitors. The horrible images leaked from Manning showed just how dangerously the US has conducted the decades’ old “war on terror,” leading to what has often become an accidental “war on civilians.” Manning’s treatment alone has lead to extensive debate about the detainment and judicial processes in the Military Tribunal justice system. Snowden’s NSA leaks have prompted extensive policy debate in Washington, along with a number of court challenges. The leaks have also resulted in abusive domestic spying and counter-terrorism policies becoming a dinner table conversation.
These men have shaped our political debate; a debate we otherwise would not have had if it were not for their actions.
We like to think in our minds that we would do as these men did, but we likely would not. These men put aside families, livelihoods, and at the most, their freedom. We like to imagine the decision to sacrifice security and comfort was a relatively easy decision to make, because what these men revealed was much more wrong than the actions of the whistle-blowers themselves.
What makes these men do these things? What makes them different, when so many of us would likely cower at the opportunity to do something that is publicly considered right? What makes men give up everything to try and encourage an outcome which they may never see realized? Who’s to say the NSA will reform itself? Who’s to say Manning will stop the war and its abuses — he hasn’t. Elsberg got off from his charges, but even he failed to end the war in Vietnam. The war would rage on for at least three more years, expanding into Laos and Cambodia at its peak.
The anatomy of a whistle blower is the anatomy of a supremely self-less person. It is the anatomy of a man who sees less of himself and more the world around him. It is a man concerned not with what happens merely to his family, but all families, including his own in the process of this consideration. It is a man who strongly considers and debates the future, despite the comfort of the present.
Most of us will continue to tow the line in our own lives. Most of us will continue to respect questionable corporate policies, government secrets and or traditions and industry etiquette we disagree with because we seek comfort over disruption. Man is concerned more with the survival of the self versus the survival of all of man around him. Psychologically, we are geared toward survival and reproduction. We continue to go on in our own lives without protest because we merely wish to survive, make money, impress those who would give us a chance rather than provoke an argument or outcome that could plausibly jeopardize our own success or very survival.
These men are programmed differently. They don’t just consider individual survival, or their family, but rather the survival of everyone. Many don’t see the problem with government intrusion, military abuses or government lies if it doesn’t directly impact them. These men rule it does impact them, even if one doesn’t know it yet. Most men will not distinguish something as a threat if it doesn’t immediately cause them discomfort or affect their lives directly. Whistle-blowers are more forward thinking, more intelligent and perceive threats well ahead of their causing discomfort. This is what causes them to blow the whistle, as opposed to turn a blind eye for the sake of their survival. These men know if they don’t say something now about a perceived threat, the threat will be unstoppable down the road — a threat to everyone.
In a nutshell, the whistle-blower is of above average intelligence and superior psychological make-up.
The average man is complacent, he likes complacency. The whistle-blower is not complacent, he despises it. A man called to action, like a whistle-blower, seeks to disrupt complacency, because he sees something wrong with it. He hopes others will follow in his wake. He hopes other will follow in his revolution, his cause for the greater good born out of a perceived threat. Ultimately, many will, and many continue to rise in protest over the NSA and the militarized nation we are becoming. But more importantly, and encouraging to the powers that be, few of us would ever be the one’s to start it, and enough refuse to follow it — simply for the sake of complacency and comfort — something of which the whistle-blower’s have neither.