Snowden, Moscow and American
authoritarians

By Thomas Pike

Stepping out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport yesterday, Edward Snowdon began the first day of his new life in the Russian Federation. Having been granted asylum, he may now live where he wishes, legally work full-time,and even take up a job offer he’s already received.

Issued with a 12-month visa, which may be extended indefinitely, Snowden could choose to reside in Russia for the rest of his life. This contrasts sharply with the likely fate of Private Bradley Manning, who, having been convicted of six breaches of the US Espionage Act 1917 now awaits sentencing by a military court. He faces a possible 136 years.

Both cases starkly demonstrate a trend highlighted by the cover of this week’s Economist; like waves gently but ceaselessly lapping at the base of a cliff, the US state is slowly eroding away the very principles upon which the country was founded.

In the past twelve years alone, we’ve witnessed the PATRIOT Act, Guantanamo, ghost prisoners, ‘advanced interrogation techniques’, two very costly wars several thousand miles from the US mainland, drone strikes, war crimes and of course, most recently, mass surveillance of the civilian population.

And yet, for me, these deviations from the ideas of the founding fathers are far less scary than the prospect that they may indeed continue.

So I ask three simple questions. Firstly, why is a large proportion of the US population seemingly so willing to trade freedom for security? Secondly, if this trend were to continue, what could the USA of 2025 resemble? And, thirdly, could the UK find itself going down such a dark and worrying path?

Over the past month, various polls have been conducted in an attempt to determine quite how the US population views Edward Snowden. The results themselves have been very unclear; one poll by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut found that only 34% considered him a ‘traitor’ but a separate survey for ABC/Washington Post found that view was held by 53%.

But the one very alarming trend is that such a significant proportion of the population believe he was not acting in the interests of the American people. Why?

I do not purport to be an expert in US sociology, but I believe certain contributing factors are not difficult to identify. The impact of 9/11 on the US, for example, should not be under-estimated. For a country which has faced few terrorist attacks and is unaccustomed to having its civilians on the very frontline of the wars it fights, such attacks were barely comprehensible.

The fear that such an event could happen again, coupled with the rhetoric that this a new type of warfare which will only cease when radical Islamists have ground every ounce of freedom out of the free world, has understandably led Americans to believe that their only solution is a more ‘protective’ State, rather than question why these Islamists may wish to attack the USA in the first place.

Secondly and, on a slightly deeper level, the very religious and conservative nature of certain parts of the US leads some Americans to believe (rightly or wrongly) that there exists a fixed moral code. That there is ‘right’, there is ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and these binary notions are unchanging.

They are, therefore, more open to such neoconservative suggestions as Saddam Hussein was an ‘evil’ man, and whose removal from power was a moral duty which the USA carried out (this particular kind of sale never really caught on in the UK).

So to therefore suggest that the US may actually be fault is to challenge whether the US is indeed the ‘good’ guy; a wholly certified fact for many Americans. And thus, by challenging the guy who polishes his halo between crushing dictators and liberating the world, Snowden and Manning must be implicitly supporting these ‘evil’ men. And henceforth, they are widely held to be traitors.

So, looking ahead, what could the next 12 years hold? Well, unless you’re good with cards, crystal balls, or econometrics, it can be difficult to predict the future. However, certain factors can again be identified. Firstly, despite the scale of the mass surveillance scandal (Nixon faced impeachment for wiretapping just one office!) the Obama administration is hardly on its knees, if a little unpopular.

This seems to suggest that personal freedom is not held in the esteem it once was by the US population. Indeed, another ABC/Washington Post poll found that 57% of Americans believe that it is more important for the NSA to ‘investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy’.

The same change in values could be seen to be behind the recent gun legislation debate, which may (though I believe it rather unlikely) see infringement of the Second Amendment. That such a debate even gets grounding I think demonstrates that Americans feel the classically liberal values behind the US constitution are less and less compatible with modern day society.

For these reason, the movement towards a more authoritarian US state is likely to continue. Furthermore, the perceived threats to US national interests are likely to increase over the next decade.

The Arab Spring could very well produce hard-line Islamist and anti-American states in the Middle-East and relations with Putin’s Russia are deteriorating considerably, the Snowden scandal in particular pouring petrol on the fire.

I can only see these trends leading to Americans feeling more and more besieged, and thus willing to trade freedom for ‘security’. So, now for the million dollar question. Could this all happen in the UK?

No country, of course, is immune from such public opinion but some may argue that our history as one of only of a handful of European nations to dodge dictatorship over the past three centuries, coupled with our experience of the Troubles and even the Blitz, somewhat improve our chances.

I heartily disagree. Over the past decade, our government has been involved in questionable extraditions, passed laws to allow for ever longer periods of detention without charge and has been implicated this summer in the mass surveillance scandal.

So, could our state become ever more intrusive, ever more powerful? Yes, it could, and is very much on its way there. But this isn’t something we need be worried about in the future. Just like the American people, this is something we need to be worrying about. Today.