As former South African president Nelson Mandela ails in his home country today, we are reminded of an important lesson the anti-apartheid revolutionary demonstrated: one sometimes has to suffer for a cause in which he truly believes.
Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years in response to his push for South African democracy. For eighteen of those, he was forced into hard labor at a Robben Island lime quarry, where the blinding glare permanently damaged his vision. Mandela's resolve and strength under such harsh conditions are a critical part of his legacy because he repeatedly put his country's best interests before his own. During his eighteen-year Robben Island sentence, Mandela composed an early version of his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom in which he recounted his trial for alleged sabotage and other crimes against the state:
In a way I had never quite comprehended before, I realized the role I could play in court and the possibilities before me as a defendant. I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonoured those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even in the fortress of the enemy.
Suffice it to say that Edward Snowden could learn a lesson or two from Nelson Mandela.
As Snowden continues to fester in a dingy airport terminal in Moscow, he undermines the very causes he purports to stand for by fleeing prosecution. In his now-famous interview, Snowden even went as far as to say that the United States "is worth dying for," but apparently feels he is not the one to do it, not that any fate so severe would befall him were he to face the music.
Jelani Cobb over at the Daily Beast expands on this very idea in the context of American history. He writes:
The cornerstone achievements in American rights were attainable precisely because their proponents refused to avoid consequences for their dissent. In 1920, Eugene Debs ran for president from behind bars to highlight his opposition to World War I and labor exploitation in the United States. During the civil-rights movement, the young activists of SNCC adopted a “Jail, No Bail” strategy not only because of the financial burdens of raising money but also because their willingness to remain in prison, to suffer for their cause, eroded the moral standing of the men responsible for their arrests.
If Snowden wants appear more whistleblower and less treasonist —or frankly more importantly, if he truly wishes to advance discussion of American privacy in any historically meaningful way —he needs to return to the United States and be his best Mandela. It might not be pretty, but he's going to have serious problems either way. Might as well attempt to take the moral high ground and let the administration bake under the appropriate heat.