A Portrait of the Leaker as a Young Man

Painted by Robert Shetterly for his Americans Who Tell The Truth Project.

Painted by Robert Shetterly for his Americans Who Tell The Truth Project.

Why have Edward Snowden’s actions resonated so powerfully for so many people?

The huge political impacts of the leaked NSA documents account for just part of the explanation. Snowden’s choice was ultimately personal. He decided to take big risks on behalf of big truths; he showed how easy and hazardous such a step can be. He blew the whistle not only on the NSA’s Big Brother surveillance but also on the fear, constantly in our midst, that routinely induces conformity.

Like Bradley Manning and other whistleblowers before him, Snowden has massively undermined the standard rationales for obedience to illegitimate authority. Few of us may be in a position to have such enormous impacts by opting for courage over fear and truth over secrecy—but we know that we could be doing more, taking more risks for good reasons—if only we were willing, if only fear of reprisals and other consequences didn’t clear the way for the bandwagon of the military-industrial-surveillance state.

Near the end of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, the man in a parable spends many years sitting outside an open door till, near death, after becoming too weak to possibly enter, he’s told by the doorkeeper: “Nobody else could have got in this way, as this entrance was meant only for you. Now I’ll go and close it.”

That’s what Martin Luther King Jr. was driving at when he said, in his first high-risk speech denouncing the Vietnam War: “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity.”

Edward Snowden was not too late. He refused to allow opportunity to be lost. He walked through the entrance meant only for him.

When people say “I am Bradley Manning,” or “I am Edward Snowden,” it can be more than an expression of solidarity. It can also be a statement of aspiration—to take ideals for democracy more seriously and to act on them with more courage.

The artist Robert Shetterly has combined his compelling new portrait of Edward Snowden with words from Snowden that are at the heart of what’s at stake: “The public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the ‘consent of the governed’ is meaningless. . . The consent of the governed is not consent if it is not informed.” Like the painting of Snowden, the quote conveys a deep mix of idealism, vulnerability and determination.

Edward Snowden has taken idealism seriously enough to risk the rest of his life, a choice that is to his eternal credit and to the world’s vast benefit. His decision to resist any and all cynicism is gripping and unsettling. It tells us, personally and politically, to raise our standards, lift our eyes and go higher into our better possibilities.


Norman Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction.org and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His books include “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death” and “Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters With America’s Warfare State.”

Norman Solomon

Co-Founder at RootsAction
Norman Solomon is the author of “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” He is the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and co-founder of RootsAction.org.

13 Comments on "A Portrait of the Leaker as a Young Man"

  1. rhetorics_killer | Jul 20, 2013 at 10:32 pm |

    Let us say Edward Snowden is the antithesis of all those who carry ‘nice ideas’ in their mind (or in their purse, the same) without doing anything in their way to enforce them. Often ‘duty’ will be invoked to excuse a lack in action; and in a state of self-leniency one will cry out for ‘a better world’, quite surely reached with a vote or similar crap. By doing what he did, Snowden not only ‘massively undermined the standard rationales for obedience to illegitimate authority’, but also desintegrated the idea that things can be done by quietly keeping a course of action within the boundaries of law and obedience. This for the legions of liberal-minded folks who everyday act in the way power intents.

  2. When I grew up in the 80’s and learned about the Bill of Rights, my teachers talked about how things were “in Russia;” how there were no free speech, and if you said anything bad about the go’vt, some soldier with a machine gun would arrest you. America was the archetype of “free,” and Russia was the archetype of “not free.”

    So, the spectacle of Edward Snowden, fleeing to Russia in order to uphold the 4th Amendment, brings that all full circle for me. His narrative forces you to ask the question “How can we still be the ‘home of the free’, if our most patriotic citizens are having to seek asylum in places like Russia?” The Obama administrations attempts to thwart him have actually made his message far more powerful than it would otherwise have been.

    The ending to this story will render the final verdict on American exceptionalism.

  3. Hoarfraust | Jul 21, 2013 at 3:47 am |

    This is the real face of heroism.

  4. Saint Eli | Jul 21, 2013 at 6:51 am |

    Russian saying during the Cold War: We feel sorry for the American people. At least we know our government is lying to us.

  5. Charlie Primero | Jul 21, 2013 at 1:28 pm |

    Snowden is a CIA asset like Daniel Ellsberg. He revealed nothing unknown.

  6. Does a whistleblower seek out information on well-known wrongdoing, secret away to a truly pervasive spookocracy, and release only partial information to the public, while going on TV to publicly identify himself and talk mostly about his beliefs, wanting to “let the public decide” rather than resolve the problem? Maybe, but it doesn’t sound like a choice to his eternal credit and to the world’s vast benefit.

    The leaks did not reveal anything new, so I remain skeptical. He could be a frustrated sys admin with delusions of grandeur. He could be part of some propaganda campaign (like Krokodil, providing official discontent to latch onto and appeasing the instinct of actual revolt). Or he could just be a little ignorant, but honestly have his heart in the right place. I don’t know. But leaking documents doesn’t necessarily equate to being a heroic whistleblower.

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