Monday, June 17, 2013


The Japanese struck Pearl Harbor and we citizens were devastated. In the maelstrom of reports, we were heartened by the report of a genuine American hero, Colin Kelly. He, we were told, dived his bomber down the smokestack of a Japanese capital ship and blew it to pieces and we went wild with joy. His son was voted an automatic entrance into West Point and a Brooklyn machine gunner on his plane also achieved some notoriety. 

Even at thirteen, it seemed dubious to me, but along with the rest of the country, I believed. Later on we learned that our country had lied to us, that the Colin Kelly story was fiction but by then things looked better and we were not too distressed.

The story had all the elements of heroism, personal sacrifice for a worthy cause. Still, the Japanese Kamikaze pilots did exactly the same thing and we called them all sorts of names, but heroes was not one. German pilots rammed American bombers, again heroic from the German perspective but I think we called them cowards on the home front.

An essential part of heroism is the hero’s vulnerability; an invincible character surely does not qualify. Achilles could not be defeated in battle; all he did was chop down the enemy, hardly heroic. Superman’s authors had to invent kryptonite to add vulnerability. Batman? Totally vulnerable so he fully qualifies.

In truth, there are two defining characteristics of a hero. The above is one; the other simply is the hero of a story. More precisely, it is the protagonist, but what do we generally call characters that do great things in our stories? You got it: heroes.
The general notion: “He that fights and runs away lives to fight another day,” does not fit our concept of hero . . . all of which takes us to Sanborn.

The details about Sanborn are somewhat murky. We know he worked for a company that contracted with the CIA to do what I have no idea. Suddenly, he disappears with many documents, his story exposing the NSA surveillance systems appears in a British newspaper and he has zipped off to Hong Kong. In a public announcement, he tells us that the people have a right to know about their loss of privacy and states he is willing to face the consequences. Somewhat irrelevantly, he also tells us that he trusts the Hong Kong courts more than American courts, thus he is now an expert of jurisprudence.

There is some talk that he has given the Chinese government some information but he also has exposed that the UK has spied on friendly and not-so-friendly governments. In spite of his willingness to face the consequences of his behavior, he continues to hide. There is no hint about what resources he has. I mean, it costs money to live and I doubt he qualifies for Hong Kong charity. Surely, before he made his move, he amassed sufficient funds for him to live and apparently comfortably. This clearly was not a spontaneous adventure but a carefully planned one.

Well, here there is an extraordinary argument about whether he is a hero or a traitor. On the hero side are the extreme right and the extreme left wings, both of which hate government secrecy. On the traitor side are those who insist that the NSA has acted lawfully, that he has broken laws and should punished.

Of course, there are not certainties about such matters. A case can be made that however he did it; he opened up a debate long overdue. Senator Udall has already , or will introduce legislation that will curtail the Patriot Act and I think that is a good idea though it probably stands not a chance. But, now we are hearing that our allies are less likely to share information with us because we leak too easily. Shaking our relationship with our friends cannot be good.

I come down on the side of traitor. Had he been willing to face the consequences, hero would have been better. In the event, he seems a bit too self-aggrandizing for my taste.

Is this fellow named Sanborn a hero?
Or simply a traitorous zero
He exposed many secrets
And expressed no regrets
The ethics of his act seem clearo.

No comments: