SNOWDEN IS A SIGN OF OUR TIMES

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- Ever since he ran off with bags full of secrets from the National Security Agency's towers of tricks, American dissident Edward Snowden has been wandering the world at top speed like a Tour de France driver who lost the roadway somewhere north of Nice.

There he was in Hong Kong! Snowden's people said the Chinese autonomous city-state had no extradition treaty with the U.S., but in fact it did. Then, there he was off to Iceland, or was it Venezuela, or was it simply Canada? No, in fact, it was Russia. He landed there (we know that) and apparently is hidden somewhere in the maze of airport transit lounges that closely resembles the map of Lubyanka prison.

Meanwhile, Washington, mad as hell over the antics of its prodigal son just when President Obama wants to deal with BIG issues, canceled Snowden's U.S. passport. No matter. He can get papers from the Russians, and word is that he will probably go to Ecuador.

Now, Ecuador, on the northwest corner of South America, is an exquisitely beautiful country with a lot of precious Inca history and -- if he goes to the exotic Galapagos Islands, he'll find some unbelievable animals, although none probably stranger than the ones he left behind.

In all, the 27-year-old Snowden, so far as we know a boy from a happy family who dropped out of high school and ended up working for one of those contractors doing specialized work for our intelligence agencies, is almost bound to end up a "man without a country," unless you consider his possibly becoming a member of the Ecuadorean Jivaro tribe, who are famous head-hunters.

But Snowden was not the first American to earn that sad title. One of the most famous stories of early American history, and the origin of the phrase, is author, historian and Unitarian clergyman Edward Everett Hale's famous work, "The Man Without a Country." In it, Philip Nolan is tried for treason in the American Civil War.

When Nolan said he never wanted to see America again, the judge took the unusual step of condemning him to sail around the world for the rest of his life, never to step foot on American soil. Nolan lived a tragic life, passed from ship to ship, never allowed even to hear anything of his country.

The story is meant as an allegory about the human chaos of the Civil War, and it worked all too well.

Now we have a number of Americans and even an Australian deeply involved in this new practice of deliberately spilling secrets for what they see as the greater good. Indeed, the Obama administration has prosecuted more individuals (seven) under the Espionage Act than all other administrations together.

Two of these young men, whom one would think, would now be gaily considering the lives ahead of them in their home countries, with their mothers and uncles and schoolmates at their sides, instead are wandering the world alone, honored by a few for giving up their countries' secrets, but disgraced by most. What will happen to them? And to us?

There have always been traitors -- Brutus and Benedict are names far less forgettable than those of their decent brethren -- and there have always been heroes. But there is something different here, in this Internet age, with these young people and their smartphones and tablets. Washington should remember how very easy it is with the new technology to copy things.

From the minute President George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld got us so deeply involved in unnecessary wars -- "wars of choice," they called them -- in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, it suddenly became fashionable to be against these stupid wars of waste -- of blood, of wealth, of time and culture, and the past and future.

When our Army went into Baghdad, for instance, it never even planned or, apparently, much thought about protecting the Baghdad museum.

This is one of the most glorious museums in the world, filled with unique antiquities from Ur, Nineveh, Hatra, Babylon and all the original cities of the Bible. Instead, we put our troops around the oil ministry, whose oil is now going to China, and many antiquities were destroyed.

When you have a nation like our beloved one that goes to war like the Mongols, one cannot long avoid the Julian Assanges or the Edward Snowdens.

Perhaps one needs remember the saga of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. We absorbed them and no one went racing across the world over them. But that was the original hated "war of choice." A better idea would be to stay away from these wars from the beginning.

(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)

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