Time magazine rightly chose Pope Francis as its Person of the Year for 2013, but I couldn't help think of Edward Snowden as in the running. But it's not because I think he's a hero or a traitor — those labels are too simple.
A true Person of the Year makes you think, as Pope Francis has done — about charity, purity of cause and the value of our institutions in changing times. But with Snowden, too many of us don't want to really think about what he revealed about our government's spying. Again, he's either a hero or a traitor — end of story.
Snowden is a familiar character — like Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers and was called a traitor. Then there was Frank Church, the senator from Idaho, who investigated the CIA and the NSA — even he was named an enemy of the state by many. When faced with an uncomfortable truth, we often don't believe it — or we want to kill the messenger.
But history vindicated both men simply because they were right. It took time, but America ultimately separated the messages that Ellsberg and Church transmitted from them as messengers.
While at first many wanted to lock up Snowden and throw away the key, the message he sent is sinking in. Some in Congress involved in oversight of the NSA have said they are not aware of the extent of the programs. NSA Director Keith Alexander has admitted he lied under oath to Congress. (Alexander is retiring in March.) Now, as huge American communications firms are begging for reform, President Obama's own internal review has recommended 46 changes to the programs. Congress plans to get involved in the discussion in 2014 as well.
Is it possible to be patriotic and a tough critic of the government at the same time? Sen. Carl Schurz was as patriotic as they come — a Civil War general, a U.S. Senator, a newspaperman and a Secretary of the Interior. He put a big caveat on the old adage of "my country, right or wrong" by famously adding, "when wrong, to be put right."
Blind allegiance is not citizenship, and "putting it right" is every American's job. Frank Church's warning was even more stark: "I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency [the NSA] and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss."
Snowden's just a messenger, but if Time published a Message of the Year issue, he'd be on it. ♦