*We like to frame issues in terms of black and white – right and wrong. But the reality is that most things are best understood in terms of shades of grey.
Two issues illustrate this point. Most people believe the government is in charge of the security of the country. In an effort to keep everyone safe the government does engage, and should engage, in underhanded tactics. We support spying on other countries; we support funding particular political groups that use questionable and/or outright illegal methods; we have convinced ourselves that the end goal of national security excuses whatever methods.
Similarly most people accept as near absolute the freedoms of speech and of the press. As a consequence we like people to be able to provide information to journalists; we consume paparazzi photographs and like to read about the intimate details of celebrity lives; we have even convinced ourselves that somehow the public has the right to know.
When these issues (national security and First Amendment freedoms) intersect they become much less black and white.
When it’s a question of how public tax dollars are spent most folks want to be able to hold the government accountable. But when tax dollars are being spent on nuclear codes, we have to rethink whether or not people have a right to know. When American national security is intertwined with leaders who commit genocide we must reassess the ends justifying the means.
These shades of grey became real recently when Edward Snowden allegedly exercised his First Amendment rights and seemingly compromised national security. Snowden leaked information from his position with the National Security Agency and, some would say, put American lives at risk.
While this certainly creates a complex situation, the essence of it all is this: should ordinary citizens know everything government agents know? The answer to this question, I think, is a resounding no. American society operates as a representative democracy because with a nation of over 300 million, things would get unwieldy should we try to inform every voter of every issue before holding a vote to come to a conclusion. Instead we elect people to make decisions on our behalf and promote our best interests. So some information is not going to be shared. This is reasonable when the information is about the timetable on repaving the road to the mall in your local municipality. But not sharing all information becomes even more important when it is about covert operatives executing a mission to assassinate terrorists.
Yes this lack of sharing information needs to be balanced with society being able to hold the decision makers accountable. So there must be room for First Amendment freedoms so that we know who to hold accountable and for what. But such a great responsibility should not be taken lightly. And the landscape of journalism having changed with the emergence of the internet, where any and everyone can disseminate any and all information, makes sharing information that much trickier. Snowden may have been operating totally patriotically when he spoke out. Nevertheless validating his course of action emboldens others who may or may not have selfless motives, credible information or credible audiences listening.
Tattling on the government is serious business and sometimes it must be done to expose ugly incidents. I accept this grey area. But let’s keep in mind it is serious business and should not be used as an avenue for 15 minutes of fame.
**Please note that I do not mean to imply that Edward Snowden is anything less than sincere in his motivations and truthful in is accusations because I do not know the veracity of any of his claims. I am worried about the implications of this in a cultural setting such as contemporary America when anything that is covered for more than a week inevitably gets replicated and consumed. It seems logical that more whistleblowers will release more information and while some of this may be important, I would not be surprised if the public continues consuming information even as it isn’t so important and/or untrue.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.