Today, the Guardian published remarks by Michael Hayden, former director of the US National Security Agency, with regard to Edward Snowden’s actions in revealing our government’s immoral actions against its own citizens. Here’s what Hayden said:
If Snowden really claims that his actions amounted to genuine civil disobedience, he should go to some English language bookstore in Moscow and get a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. Thoreau points out clearly that civil disobedience gets its moral authority by the willingness to suffer the penalties from disobeying a law, even if you think that law is unjust.
Here’s the problem with the whole “it’s the law and must be obeyed or suffered” paradigm:
The law said slavery was okay and provided for punishment for trying to escape slavery. The law said repressing women’s right to vote was okay, and provided punishment for women who tried to vote. The law said informed, consensual personal choice of sexuality was not okay, and punished people for such choices in the bedroom and elsewhere.
First, none of those things are actually okay. Those laws were (and remain) immoral and wrong; and more to the point, anyone who charged anyone under those laws was immoral and wrong, anyone who advocated punishment under those laws was immoral and wrong, and of course, anyone who applied punishment under those laws was immoral and wrong.
Second, with regard to Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, which (essentially) says that the moral authority for civil disobedience comes only from being willing to suffer the slings and arrows of an unjust law’s unjust punishment, not only no, but hell no.
The moral authority for civil disobedience comes directly and inevitably from the fact that the law is morally wrong.
There is no moral authority in advocating, creating, obeying or enforcing a law that is wrong, nor in simply declaring “it’s the law.” Only moral failure.
For instance, when you make a law that says (or supports the idea that) slavery is ok, there is nothing that can make that law moral. There is nothing that can make obeying that law moral. There is nothing that can make disobeying that law immoral. The only moral path available to you is to outright disobey the law. Anything else is immoral.
If you want the law to have moral authority, the only way you can achieve that is to create moral laws.
Our central problem in this regard is that our politicians and a very large number of the people they have appointed are, in fact, immoral individuals acting contrary to the interest of the public at large and every individual they are supposed to be working in service of. Not to mention breakers of the oaths they took that give them the moral right to hold the offices they sit. They don’t deserve to be supported in any such undertaking. They deserve to be kicked in the shin. Hard.
Now, yes, it is true that in fighting immoral government acts, you may indeed suffer at its hands. That is the core nature of immorality; it does others wrong. But that is a far cry from any legitimacy for the conception that says you should so suffer. Thoreau was flat-out wrong. So is Hayden, acting as an echo chamber for Thoreau. And just so we’re perfectly clear on the issue of the day: Snowden was, and remains, right.
If you would like to take away a money quote about law that is moral in its characterization of law, rather than the sophist nonsense Thoreau was (and Hayden is) peddling, I’m delighted to oblige (emphasis within the quote mine):
…in so far as [law] deviates from right reason it is called an unjust law; in such case it is no law at all, but rather a species of violence.