Edward Snowden is no Socrates and no Martin Luther King.
I'll explain these outlandish comparisons in a bit, but first the confession that I was not erudite enough to come up with them myself. The insight comes courtesy of the Aspen Institute's Justice and Society Seminar here in Colorado, where I've been spending several days pondering at times abstruse texts that turn out to have surprising resonance with current events.
Among them: how to think about whether Snowden was justified in leaking classified materials about U.S. surveillance programs and further justified in fleeing the country.
King and Socrates helped convince me that the answer to both is no, as much as Snowden likes to cast himself along such heroic lines. To listen to Snowden, he acted in a noble tradition of civil disobedience by revealing what he asserts is illegal surveillance by the National Security Agency.
"I believe in the principle declared at Nuremberg in 1945," he pronounced from his Russian limbo last week. "Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring."
"Accordingly, I did what I believed right and began a campaign to correct this wrongdoing," Snowden continued. "I did not seek to enrich myself. I did not seek to sell U.S. secrets."
Contrast Snowden's missive with King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." Snowden doesn't stack up well.
King argues that he was justified in ignoring pleas to work within a system that had proved itself ineffective to deal with segregation. Snowden simply chose to bypass the system without trying alternatives such as using the whistle-blower statute or going to Congress.
Most vividly, unlike King, Snowden lacked the courage to stick around to defend his actions. "One who breaks an unjust law must do it ... with a willingness to accept the penalty," King writes. "I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law." (Italics mine.)
There is room for disagreement about whether Snowden's leaks were justified. I don't think so, although his actions have sparked an important, and overdue, conversation about surveillance. But Snowden's justifications for fleeing are unconvincing.
"I have been made stateless and hounded for my act of political expression," he declared from the Moscow airport. Not true. Snowden's "hounding" stems from his deliberate decision to violate the criminal law. In the U.S. he was free to express any political view - certainly freer than he would be in countries like Russia, Venezuela or Ecuador.
Snowden asserts that his flight was justified by the harsh treatment of another leaker, former Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning. Snowden claims that surrendering could expose him to torture or even assassination by the U.S. government.
This is not the Socratic method. In 399 B.C., an Athenian jury convicted the philosopher of impiety and of corrupting the city's youth, and sentenced him to death. As related by Plato, Socrates' friend Crito visited him in prison and urged Socrates to escape.
Socrates refused. Even though the conviction is unjust, he argued, it would be wrong - having benefited from living under the laws of Athens and agreed to abide by the jury's judgment - to now seek to evade his punishment.
Socrates imagined the law as if it were an actual character, chiding him: "You are behaving like the lowest type of menial, trying to run away in spite of the contracts and undertakings by which you agreed to live as a member of our state."
So Socrates remained, and drank the prescribed hemlock. Which makes Socrates a great philosopher, and Snowden the lowest type of menial.
Email Ruth Marcus' email address is firstname.lastname@example.org