Saturday, August 29, 2015

Editorial Extra: Spilling his guts in name of liberty

Fans of Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 can't help but hear an echo of the novel's plot in the real-life drama playing out with the leak of information about the massive U.S. spying efforts.

Editorial Extra: Spilling his guts in name of liberty

An ad for a showing of 1970 movie Catch-22.
An ad for a showing of 1970 movie Catch-22.

Fans of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 can't help but hear an echo of the novel’s plot in the real-life drama playing out over the leak of information about massive U.S. government spying programs.

The admitted whistle-blower, former National Security Agency contract worker Edward Snowden, apparently exposed the NSA's telephone and Internet data-gathering in an attempt to trigger a public debate about the extent to which our privacy has been compromised in the name of national security.

That debate now seems likely to play out in the federal courts. But before Snowden’s revelations, civil libertarians had been turned away because they couldn't prove to the courts' satisfaction that anyone’s communications had been targeted illegally. Why? Because the government won't say whose phone or e-mail messages have been tapped.

The legal impossibility of a challenge to NSA snooping was a classic catch-22 – the term Heller coined to describe a problem whose very nature precludes a solution. But with Snowden's disclosures of specific phone carriers who were ensnared in the NSA’s net, the American Civil Liberties Union and its allies – now suing again – are in a better position to make their case.

Back to the novel: One of Heller's central characters was Snowden, an airman who was mortally wounded by flak on a bombing run, and who was tended to by the novel's protagonist, Capt. John Yossarian. As Yossarian patches a leg wound for Snowden, he gradually realizes that the airman has sustained devastating wounds to his torso. Peeling back Snowden's flak jacket, Yossarian recoils in horror as Snowden's intestines spill out and Snowden dies amid the gore.

The encounter radically alters Yossarian's outlook on the war and life. And the parallels with the NSA leaker go beyond the name. Indeed, Edward Snowden's figuratively spilling his guts on domestic spying in the United States could fundamentally alter the wholesale surveillance born of the war on terrorism.

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The Inquirer Editorial Board's Say What? opinion blog showcases the work of the editors and writers who produce the newspaper's daily and Sunday opinion pages.

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