Every historical moment is headlined by a handful of individuals from whom the abuse of power and authority elicits extraordinary acts of courage. In blowing the whistle on the wanton misconduct of governments — be it lying to citizens, intruding on their private affairs, or colluding with vested interests — these figures set aside their personal concerns for the greater public good. As Daniel Ellsberg, Bradley Manning, Shanmugham Manjunath and Satyendra Dubey all found out, whistleblowers run the risk of persecution, solitary confinement, harassment, and even death. Yet they soldier on. Edward Snowden, whose leak of classified U.S. National Security Agency documents last week laid bare its extensive surveillance of phone and internet records, has joined this pantheon of heroes. The young American was at a crossroads: to continue with his cushy job as an analyst for the NSA or challenge the world’s most powerful state, which, “if they want to get you, over time they will.” He took the road less travelled, surrendering his claim to a comfortable life in order to be able to shine a harsh light on the U.S. government’s spying excesses.
Above all, Edward Snowden should be lauded for his decision to bear scrutiny and criticism from fellow citizens, the curtailment of whose freedoms he saw as unacceptable. Giddy from the kool-aid offered by a U.S. President committed to human rights on paper while systematically undermining them at home and abroad, his detractors have branded Mr. Snowden a traitor and betrayer of the ‘American way of life’. Speculation about his conduct has already taken a turn for the banal: why he chose to leak NSA documents to a foreign news outlet (the Guardian), how a high-school dropout was granted access to top-secret material, and what sinister aims drove him to seek refuge in Hong Kong. Commentators turned experts in international law have ventured to suggest his possible kidnapping by U.S. officials would be legal. The stream of publicity in his direction, both favourable and otherwise, was unavoidable but the young whistleblower has scrupulously stayed away from the spotlight. “I don’t want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the U.S. government is doing,” he said in an interview. As he readies himself for a protracted legal battle against extradition and eventual trial for treason, Mr. Snowden has, through his revelations, convincingly underscored the perils of untrammelled executive power. His courage and moral persuasion in the face of extreme odds are an inspiration to defenders of civil liberties everywhere. They must ensure he is not persecuted.