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Man without a Country

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“I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”

“Think!” says a little card taped to my computer after a failure to do so. I wonder if regret or consequence is the greater teacher, but both are more powerful than any other. 

This subject comes up as a result of the dilemma of Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency who leaked documents about top-secret surveillance programs. He justified his actions saying, “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things. . .I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.” Of course his action has, in fact, created that world for himself. 

I have taken a closer look at this young man as a result of coincidence. Someone in the media referred to him as “a man without a country,” a reference to a story I remember well from childhood. It too is the story about a young man not much beyond boyhood, and Edward Snowden was a few days short of his thirtieth birthday when he “leaked.” In scanning the Wikipedia report on his life, one sees a clear trail of impulse, immaturity, and also naïve idealism. He also apparently claimed to be a “computer wizard” in spite of the absence of academic credentials.

But back to Man without a Country, published in 1863 by Edward Everett Hale. That was during the Civil War, and Hale may have been inspired by a desire to fortify the Union. It tells the story of a young man named Philip Nolan who became enchanted with Aaron Burr and whose loyalty to the man caused him to be tried for treason. 

The story is complicated, but Burr tied with Thomas Jefferson for president in 1800. Through the effort of Alexander Hamilton, whom Burr later killed in a duel, Jefferson was named president. The duel ended Burr’s political career, and the charge of treason came from subsequent activity trying to settle the Southwest. 

Nolan is a hothead in the story, and when asked at the end of his testimony about enlisting to help Burr, he erupts: “D— the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” 

The colonel holding the court and half the officers observing have fought in the Revolution risking their lives for the idea that Nolan has cursed, and they are shocked and angry. Nolan’s fate is to be confined aboard ships for the rest of his life, only rarely allowed to set foot on foreign soil but never again to see or hear or read anything about his country. 

There is a touching moment later in the story when Nolan, who becomes very learned in his isolation, reads to others aboard ship from the “ The Lay of the Last Minstrel” by Sir Walter Scott as follows: 

“Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,

Who never to himself hath said,

‘This is my own, my native land!’

Tombstone of Sir Walter Scott

Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,

As home his footsteps he hath turned

From wandering on a foreign strand?—

If such there breathe, go, mark him well.”

The reading goes on until Nolan becomes too emotional to continue, having realized for the first time that he will never return home.

Eventually the government forgets about Nolan and is indifferent to the effort decades later to get him released, and so he dies a very old but peaceful man aboard ship. The narrator has shared his story, he says, as a warning to the young Nolans “of what it is to throw away a country.” 

So now we have Edward Snowden trying desperately to find a country that will take him in, one that will undoubtedly use him for its own political ends. Belatedly, he is no doubt getting in touch with the consequences of his act, the weight of the charges that will be filed, the legal expenses his family may incur, and the destruction of career and life he has precipitated for perhaps not such good cause. 

There is, after all, a great deal of falseness afoot, specifically blaming the United States for the consequences of a technological revolution that has made all of civilization vulnerable in a way we never have been before. Just think about the power afoot in the world and about its dark side. 

Let’s go from small to large. Computers have empowered all sorts of mischief: defamation, infidelity, prying, fraud, harassment, blackmail, theft, the organization of demonstrations and revolutions, terrorist attacks, havoc among the world’s financial institutions, malicious hacking, cyber attacks for so-called security purposes, and of course international spying. Duh! Anybody who thinks that only the United States is doing the latter is self-deluded. 

It is a nightmare all right, this ability we have developed to collect, manipulate, and exploit data and communication for not always benevolent purpose, an ability over which none of us has complete control. And here is the scary part. Genius in this field flourishes among young people, people like Edward Snowden whose skill and knowledge endow them with capacity that is not yet balanced by judgment. 

We can probably agree that Snowden has launched a conversation we need to have, but he has also presented us with a dilemma. By definition, that is “an argument necessitating a choice between equally unfavorable or disagreeable alternatives.” The way the world is, Americans will be attacked again, and when it happens, all eyes will turn toward Washington and voices will rise in outrage: “Why didn’t you know? Why didn’t you protect us? How could you let this happen?” No matter what our security, it will be deemed inadequate. 

So part of the conversation we need to have nationally is about how much risk we can tolerate. As for Snowden, perhaps it is time to show national compassion. The word “treason” has been flung around, but the fact is that he stole priceless intellectual property from his employer. If he declines to return within a specified period of time to face trial on that charge, his citizenship could be cancelled with no potential ever even to visit. Perhaps he will be happier with the ways of another country. Unlike Walter Scott, however, his tombstone will not bear the phrase, “This is my own, my native land.”

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