There are words that deserve a second chance. Traitor, for example. Traitor, and words like it, are often used by people who are doing some kind of wrong, to shift the blame on to the person who reports them, as if they were a contemptible sneak.
I think that in this world, where the holders of power fight tooth and nail to control not only our economy, but also our information and our minds, we have to look very carefully at the word traitor. How does this word apply, for example, to the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, or the former American spy Edward Snowden, who have divulged thousands of secret documents that show how the United States was spying on its allies, and subjected its enemies to torture? And how about the systems engineer Hervé Falciani, an HSBC bank employee who unmasked thousands of tax evaders hiding money in Switzerland? Are these men heroes or bandits? Should we put them in jail, or erect a statue to them – or both (this often happens, though not at the same time)?
In Spain such people can at least be sure of losing their jobs – like the deputy chief of the employment department in the Madrid regional government, who reported to his superiors a 15-million-euro scam carried out by a number of employers, involving company training courses financed with public money.
There are friendlier words, such as whistleblower, which normally means someone who reveals systematic wrongdoing committed by an organization they work for. But Assange, Snowden and Falciani all live in exile. They are considered renegades and some are wanted by the police. They are the Salman Rushdies of the West. Rivers of poisoned ink have run about them. But, even if they were not moved by altruism pure and simple, should we not thank them for having brought all those dark doings to light?
According to the polls, 61 percent of Americans are opposed to a pardon for Snowden
The traitor is always the villain of the story, ever since Judas Iscariot – whose very name comes from sicarius, a common Latin term for a hired killer, in this case applied to rebel Jews who carried a dagger under their clothes to be used for stabbing Romans in the back. And that is what Assange, Snowden and Falciani are considered to be by those who want to punish them: backstabbers, mercenaries, traitors to their country, deserters who have sold themselves to the enemy for a plate of beans. In their own country, Snowden and Private Manning, who gave Assange the dirt on Afghanistan and Iraq, are seen as modern versions of Benedict Arnold, who, in the War of Independence sold the keys of the fort at West Point to the British. And some would like to send them to the electric chair, as they did during the Cold War to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had given nuclear secrets to the Soviets. Snowden requested protection when, according to his lawyer, he heard that a Pentagon spokesman had told some journalists that he would personally like to “put a bullet in his head.” Perhaps the spokesman did not actually say this, but that is not the point. The point is, it is what lots of people think. According to the polls, 61 percent of Americans are opposed to a pardon for Snowden.
What will happen to Assange and Snowden? Perhaps the passage of time will turn them into champions of truth, as it has done to Daniel Ellsberg, the armed forces analyst who passed documents to The New York Times proving that almost everything Washington had been telling the media about the Vietnam War was a pack of deliberate lies; or William Mark Fitch, the FBI director who, it is now known, was the famous “Deep Throat” of the Watergate case, and leaked to the press the information it needed to unmask president Nixon. Both are now officially considered deserving of public gratitude, but this seems a little more difficult today in view of the strict obedience the political parties are demanding of their members, and this includes those in Spain too. Dissidence and moderation are considered acts of indiscipline. Everything that does not amount to signing a blank check amounts to heresy. Heterodoxy is the opposite of submission.
In their book Éloge de la trahison (or, In praise of treason), Denis Jeambar and Yves Roucaute write that in politics, “treason is the higher expression of the pragmatism that avoids intra-party rifts and ensures democratic continuity, by making more flexible the practice of principles that are preached in theory.” They say that not to commit treason “is to live with your back turned to the spasms of society and the mutations of history,” and maintain that this is the way of adapting yourself to the will of the people, and that those who resist any sort of change are the tyrants. But this is also an alibi for the cynicism of those who fail to keep their electoral promises, and then insult citizens’ intelligence by calling their own behavior “realistic.”
This is a hypocritical world, and those who heap terms such as “traitor” on Assange and Snowden are the same who offer million-dollar rewards for information on the whereabouts of their adversaries, as they did with Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden, or use the documentation provided by Falciani to hit HSBC with billion-dollar fines for money-laundering. Others consider betrayal, at the very least, a necessary evil, so much so that Snowden has been proposed as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps flags ought to be defended or not, depending on what they stand for. The right to vote is one half of democracy; the other is the right to know.