NSA leaker Snowden and the debatable definition of “heroism”

Edward Snowden is back in the news with a story that the government may be considering offering him amnesty in exchange for return of the remaining estimated 1.5 million classified NSA documents in his possession. In the months since Snowden first leaked documents to the press, I’ve found myself engaged in conversations discussing issues I usually don’t talk about with friends and family—issues like privacy, security, and the fundamental relationship between the individual and government.

Those conversations often begin with questions of how concerned each of us should be about government intrusion into our emails, cell-phone records, and private lives as law-abiding citizens who pose no threat to the state or to our neighbors.  Those conversations often grapple as well with the future: how technological innovation could intrude ever more deeply into our privacy and whether history will judge Edward Snowden as hero or traitor for revealing the abuses and dangers inherent in new technologies.

What intrigues me most in those conversations is the hero/traitor discussion. The more I think about it, the less important figuring out how to label Mr. Snowden becomes. I realize two things: first, that the fact that Mr. Snowden sparked a national debate about privacy and security is reason enough to thank him. And second, that Snowden, and how we think about him and others who put themselves at risk to bring to our attention abuse and misuse of power, should encourage us to look more closely at our beliefs and assumptions about heroism.

When thinking about this, it’s inevitable that there are more questions than answers. Questions like who is a hero? What acts rise to the heroic? What is the relationship between heroism and the situation out of which it arises? Can acts of heroism be heroic in what they achieve but traitorous in the means employed? Is it ethical or unethical to exploit the idea of heroism to achieve certain outcomes?

Let’s look at what the dictionary tells us about heroes and heroism. The definition includes courage in the face of danger and actions that put the hero in danger or risk of bodily or other harm.

The definition couldn’t be clearer.  But clarity on paper is one thing. Real life is quite another. What are our commonly held concepts of heroism beyond the page? Without question, we recognize the heroic when the act of heroism is physical: firefighters and cops rushing into a burning building or climbing the stairs of a doomed skyscraper. Spectators rushing to aid victims of a bombing when it’s unclear if there are more explosions to come.  Good Samaritans jumping into raging floodwaters to save strangers caught in the deluge or jumping down next to electrified subway tracks to pull a person to safety and away from an oncoming train. Teachers shielding the bodies of their young charges from a madman’s bullets.

In these situations we rarely discuss or question the heroes’ motives beyond the impulse to aid, to give comfort, to save a life. We focus solely on the outcome of the hero’s act.  But ambiguity rears its head when the hero acts to achieve an outcome that is more abstract—as Snowden did—like protecting privacy or exposing the abuse of power.

Even in combat heroism is not without its ambiguities.  We label unreservedly as heroes those who are physically damaged. Their wounds—the missing limbs, disfigured faces, charred skin, scars from bullet holes—are worn like garments that become the physical manifestation of their heroic acts. Unfortunately, those who are psychologically damaged in combat do not fare as well.

Once upon a time the bar was set so high for the heroic that few could reach it. To be a hero was to be truly extraordinary.  It meant taking risks and actions almost beyond imagination. Today the jingoistic language of our elected officials—from commander-in-chief on down—commonly equates the choice to become an armed combatant with heroism itself.

The concept of heroism has been altered even more radically since the advent of all-day, all-night, all-media, everywhere-you-look-listen-or-read marketing. The shift is perceptual and semantic in nature. The hero and the heroic have been stretched and twisted into nearly unrecognizable shapes to fit into a package of marketing tools. Word devaluation is the most accurate way to describe what’s happened.  Just look at how the word is casually thrown around.  Television recruitment ads for the armed forces sell the promise of heroism for all. Bumper stickers extol those in uniform as “our heroes.”

It’s beyond question that young men and women who choose to devote a time of out of their lives and risk their health and lives for us deserve our admiration and gratitude.  But to label every one of them as heroes, regardless of their duties and the way in which they carry out those duties, is to diminish the heroism of the true hero. What we have today is hero-lite.

Something more insidious is going on as well. Call it spin or propaganda, whichever you choose. But heroism is not just about the person and the act. Calling something heroic bestows upon the act the seal of approval and justification.  We assume that if an act is labeled heroic then the cause for which the act was taken must also be just.   If every soldier, sailor, and pilot is a hero then the fight itself must necessarily be just.

No commander nor politician will ever admit that the lives of Americans lost in service to their country were sacrificed for naught. To admit that is to break a solemn trust with the families of those who have died. It is to admit as a society that we asked those men and women to defend us in a false cause. If the men and women of our military are all heroes, as our politicians and the advertising world tell us, then how can we question the justness of the wars they are engaged in? These brave individuals cannot be heroes for nothing. And so goes the self-reinforcing circle of logic.

But let’s return to Edward Snowden. It’s revealing that a majority of Americans recognize the ambiguities in judging Snowden’s actions.  In one poll, 46 percent said they didn’t know if Snowden should be called a traitor or a patriot. In another, 23 percent labeled Snowden a traitor, and 31 percent labeled him a patriot.

And what about Snowden himself? After fleeing the U.S., Snowden granted an interview to the South China Morning Post in which he articulated his view of the path he’s followed. Snowden chose his words carefully: “I’m neither traitor nor hero. I’m an American.”

After much thought, I understand exactly what he means.