Duty to country does not always mean following the law.
There has been a lot of debate in the United States lately questioning the moral acceptability of taking the law into your own hands. This comes on the heel of the George Zimmerman verdict, the Edward Snowden leak and Chelsea Manning’s coming out as a WikiLeaks informant. Each of these individuals, in different ways, decided to take the law into their own hands. As someone who has grown up idolizing comic book vigilantes—I divulged recently my plan to put together a combat suit and acquire the skills and knowledge-base of comic book heroes—these stories give me cause for contemplation.
Most people responded to the Zimmerman story with outrage, for a variety of reasons, but the Snowden and Manning cases are significantly more morally ambiguous. There are many of viewpoints that are equally valid, some saying that any actions against the American government should be punishable while others call for pardons, but there is one specific argument that to me is simply untrue: the claim that Snowden or Manning were being unpatriotic.
Argue the right and wrong of it all day long, I think that we should all agree, without question, that the most patriotic thing an American citizen can do is to disagree with the government in the name of public interest. If we want to debate taking the law into our own hands, we should really examine what it means to be an American first.
When James Madison included the Bill of Rights to the American Constitution, it was established as a standard of fundamental rights possessed by every American citizen. The Bill of Rights also doubled as a safeguard against oppressive government acquiring too much power by offering the freedom of the press and speech. While Snowden’s employment by Booz Allen Hamilton may make this point moot, the Pickering v. Board of Education (1968) ruling established that the government as an employer cannot fire an employee for speech “on matters of public concern.” While Snowden’s job security is not necessarily protected by this, it does establish that speech of this manner, released to in the name of public service, is not inherently a treasonous act. The final portion of the Pickering test is whether or not the speech made public disrupts the government’s abilities to perform its duties, which is arguable and only for the Supreme Court to decide after being given all available information.
I don’t condone breaking the law, but there are times when the law is wrong. The history of the United States is rife with times when the law has not sought to protect the American people; we have interned the East Asian populace in fear of the Japanese, we have lawfully kept people as property, we have tracked and persecuted individuals for their political affiliations, etc. The Supreme Court exists for the sole reason that these hiccups are an inevitable and foreseen occurrence with any governing body.
In Chelsea Manning’s letter request for a pardon, she writes, “When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians. Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.”
I have known and loved many friends who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan in psychological ruin after following orders to knowingly torture or kill innocents; I regret that I do not possess the writing skill to convey to you what it must be like to have done something that, at your core, you believe to be the most horrendous and sadistic thing a human being can do. I can’t tell you what it’s like to leave your country to fight for freedom and justice, feeling self-assured and noble, and come back feeling like a murderer, a slaughterer of children, having lost all faith in the country you once believed to be a bastion of the good and the just. But I can tell you about how I sat on the couch and my friend in the chair, how we had dimmed all the lights so his face was cast in a muted orange glow, how he couldn’t look at me, how he stared straight ahead, eyes forced wide and welled with water, as he described to me the fear twisted into the child’s face. He told me how he tried to fight back against the order, how he argued, He’s unarmed! And was told, You don’t know that! And answered, Yes, I do! He looks like he’s twelve. He’s just wearing shorts. He’s unarmed. I’m sure of it. And heard his commanding officer bark, I gave you an order. I can tell you that my friend will never be the same and that he is one of far too many with similar experiences.
Here is what I think about Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden: I think that America has designed itself to be a great country standing on noble principles and that our structure has more or less enabled the nation to align with these original ideals; I think that sometimes the government betrays the people, because sometimes we all make terrible mistakes when we try too hard to do the right thing; I think that sometimes it is necessary to betray the government in order to protect the people and to remind the government of its duties. Most importantly, I think that sometimes, when it is necessary to defy the government and to break the law, it is without question or moral dilemma an American citizen’s patriotic duty to do so. Anything less is un-American.