Edward Snowden, the 29-yr-old responsible for one of the largest national security leaks in US history, has an auspicious name. In Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s biting, terrifying, wildly-funny and scathing satire on the the whole nature of war, the corruptibility of man, and, most importantly, the self-defeating loops of logic man twists himself into to justify inherent barbarism in a civilized age (of which the eponymous catch is just the most famous example), the main character, Yossarian, is haunted by an unknown character named Snowden spilling his secret.
The chronology of the book jumps back and forth, but the driving action is that something snapped in Yossarian when Snowden told him his secret. The madness of the enterprise revealed itself in full for Yossarian. It isn’t until late in the book that we see what caused the driving action, what really was Snowden’s secret. (and spoiler alert here, I guess, though it was published almost 50 years ago, so come on). While on a bombing mission, Yossarian’s plane took flack, and Snowden was injured. Yossarian went to help the moaning man, complaining of the cold, and at first saw a good-sized wound on the man’s leg, but nothing absolutely fatal. But then Snowden’s secret was revealed. Yossarian removed the man’s jacket, and saw that a huge piece of flack had torn through his stomach. The jacket had been weakly holding everything in, but then it all came out: all that made Snowden, blood and organs and flesh, poured out onto the floor and onto Yossarian. The whole inner-workings were brought to light. Man is just flesh, and war is designed to destroy that flesh. The whole sick nature of everything was revealed.
It isn’t really stretching the point to say that Edward Snowden did much the same thing, only a bit neater (and honestly, it makes me think the name is fake. It is almost too perfect). The apparatus that this amorphous war has created has been brought to light. I think most people suspected it, but the depth is stunning. And perhaps the most surprising part is that everything that is done is legal. Laws were passed by elected officials that allow for the government, which has also arrogated unto itself the right to assassinate American citizens and throw people in jail for indefinite periods without a trial, can mine nearly everything you do online and on the phone.
This is raw power, and it is scary. The thing is, there can be arguments for why the government needs this, or why it is absolutely necessary for national security. The problem is that we never had them (and I am a little worried that now the argument is going to be more about whether Snowden is a traitor or a hero than what he helped expose). This is poison to a country that fashions itself as a democracy and an experiment in self-governance, as Charlie Pierce would put it.
So these are the things we can now discuss, now that they have been brought kicking and screaming into the sunlight. Should the government be able to monitor your online and telephonic presence to any extent? If yes, how much? Does merely drawing connections between who is calling whom without actually listening in really invade your privacy? Who gets to decide this? The President? (not just this one, but any. For Dems- of whom I am one- who think it is OK because of Obama, imagine that Scotty Walker somehow becomes the next President.)
More than that, at least in my opinion, is the question of worth. The biggest elephant in the room, that no one would touch with a ten-foot pole, and other cliches of the type that we’ve been using for 12 years to avoid the real issue, is that guaranteed safety is at best illusory and at worst an invitation to live in North Korea, only without the dumpy charisma of Dear Leader Jr. What we have done is upended our country, and our idea of privacy, due to a major and horrifying terrorist attack. This was completely understandable, but terrorism is also a rare thing, and something that happens, and is, at the end, not 100% avoidable. People will always want to hurt others, and unless we want to live in a police state, one who is constantly sending troops and robots around the world to do our bidding, it won’t ever be completely solved.
The problem is we weren’t really asked. We were taken advantage of due to our fright, and our apathy. This was partly the product of a strange confluence: this scarring, shattering, atavistic attack was roughly coincidental with the rise of social media and the death of public reticence. We all have given up a lot of privacy. Hell, right now, I am imagining there are people who want to know what I am thinking about this, and hoping that my picture reveals a “mysterious charm, like Batman”. The government in a large way is merely taking what we have given.
But now they have to ask. Now, thanks to Snowden, every elected official will have to take a stand on what they think of this (assuming the media does their job, and that is a big assumption). We can finally talk about what has been done in our name, for us, to us. A country of the people and by the people can’t have it any other way. So it is messy and horrible and a stinking bloody peak into the world right under our fragile skin, but this was a secret that needed spilling. America’s great sin over the past decade has been to not talk about this new kind of war. If we don’t, one day the satire of Catch-22 is going to seem like a gentle look at a softer past.