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An American conundrum: Balancing personal liberty and our social compact

I find it hard to get excited about the revelations of government eavesdropping by Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old National Security Agency analyst who is now seeking asylum for what some view as treason.

I don’t doubt this young libertarian is sincere in his belief that the government is gathering vast amounts of information in what is an overzealous attempt to protect us from terrorist attacks. Perhaps the “national security” net is too broad and impinges on privacy rights. But to err on the side of public safety is understandable, given the world we live in. Someone observed that in order to find the “needle” you must first have a “haystack.”

Besides, privacy is not what it used to be; in the internet era virtually all our communications are available for inspection. Much of what we do suggests we don’t care that much. We seem willing to trade off scrutiny for convenience.

Snowden took it upon himself to expose government over-reaching. He decided the risks to personal liberty were such as to warrant violating an oath of secrecy to warn the public that the information being obtained could be used against citizens. A rogue government could target enemies and restrict personal liberty.

The arguments sound a lot like that of many who oppose any restrictions on gun ownership. The Second Amendment, they argue, permits citizens to arm themselves, even with assault weapons, not just to protect themselves from criminals but also from a government intent upon limiting freedom.

A desire to limit the size and restrict the power of government becomes the overriding concern for those who see government as an adversary rather than as an instrument designed for the purpose of identifying and achieving the common good. They resist the obvious accommodations necessary in attaining a sensible balance between individual liberty and the social compact.

Snowden decided he was the better judge of how far government should go in determining how much information would be appropriate to protect the public from what could be a devastating attack. He concluded that the risk to individual freedom was greater than the danger posed by revealing secret information.

After every attack there is the public outcry: How did this happen? Why wasn’t it prevented? The second guessers demand stricter security. The pressure is almost irresistible. Do we go too far? Yes, an overreaction is almost inevitable. We are still feeling the effects of the 9/11 attacks.

Undoubtedly, Snowden sees himself as a heroic whistleblower like Daniel Ellsberg. I view them as quite different. Ellsberg was right in leaking the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the Vietnam War for what it was: a misguided sacrifice of blood and treasure. He was also prepared to accept the consequences of his actions.

What Snowden did required courage but in a questionable cause. He has undermined an important security apparatus, established by law, overseen by Congress and the administration, and carried out under the supervision of a judge. Given the potential consequences, most Americans are willing to tolerate some overreaching, including minimally invasive privacy intrusions.

Hopefully Snowden’s revelations will do some good, for they certainly have done some damage by making us less secure.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.