Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer is a commentator on international affairs based in London

Gwynne Dyer: Snowden's mission: helping us control the spies

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Edward Snowden. Photo / AP
Edward Snowden. Photo / AP

It's always dangerous to declare "mission accomplished". Former US president George W. Bush did it weeks after he invaded Iraq, and it will be quoted in history books a century hence as proof of his arrogance and his ignorance.

British Prime Minister David Cameron did it a couple of weeks ago in Afghanistan, and you didn't know whether to laugh or cry. But when Edward Snowden said it last week - "In terms of personal satisfaction, the mission's already accomplished" - nobody laughed.

Unless you just want a list of events, a year-end piece should be a first draft of history that tries to identify where the flow of events is really taking us. By that standard, Snowden comes first. The former National Security Agency contractor, once an unremarkable man, saw where the combination of new technology and institutional empire-building was taking us, and stepped in front of the juggernaut to stop it.

"You recognise that you're going in blind," Snowden told the Washington Post.

"But when you weigh that against the alternative, which is not to act, you realise some analysis is better than no analysis."

So he fled his country taking a huge cache of secret documents with him, and started a global debate about the acceptability of mass surveillance techniques that the vast majority of people did not even know existed.

As Snowden, now living in exile in Russia, put it in a Christmas broadcast on Britain's Channel 4: "A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They'll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought."

Unless, that is, the monster of state-run mass surveillance is brought under control.

This is not just an American issue, though the protagonists in the debate that Snowden has unleashed are inevitably American. These techniques are available to every government, or soon will be. The tyrannies will naturally use them to control their citizens, but other countries have a choice. The future health of liberal democratic societies depends on the restrictions we place on these techniques in this decade.

"The conversation occurring today will determine the amount of trust we can place both in the technology that surrounds us and the government that regulates it," Snowden said in his Channel 4 broadcast.

"Together we can find a better balance, end mass surveillance and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying."

He has paid a high price to give us this opportunity, and we should use it.

Now, in no particular order, some other new things this year, most of them unwelcome. Have you noticed that protesters are starting to use non-violent techniques to overthrow democratically elected governments?

We have grown familiar with the scenes of unarmed crowds taking over the streets and forcing dictators to quit. It didn't always succeed, but from Manila in 1986 to Cairo in 2011 it had a pretty good success rate, and at least two dozen dictators bit the dust. But the crowds were back in Tahrir Square in Cairo last July to overthrow President Mohammed Morsi, who had been elected only one year before in a free election.

Morsi had won with only 51.7 per cent of the vote, and a lot of people who did vote for him were holding their noses. The secular liberals who made the revolution in 2011 divided their votes between several rival presidential candidates, leaving voters in the second round with only a choice between Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, and an adversary who was part of the old regime.

Morsi often talked as if he had a mandate to Islamise Egyptian society (though he didn't do all that much), and it alarmed the former revolutionaries. They could and should have waited for the next election, which Morsi would certainly have lost. But they were too impatient, so they made a deal with the army and went back out on the square.

Wars have exploded across Africa this year like a string of firecrackers. In January, France sent troops to Mali after Islamist rebels who had already captured the sparsely populated north of the country threatened to overrun the rest of it as well. In March, Muslim rebels captured Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic. Their leaders quickly lost control, and the rebel troops began to massacre Christians. Christian militias then began carrying out mass reprisals against the Muslim civilian minority, and thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, were dead before French troops arrived this month. And a full-scale civil war suddenly broke out in South Sudan this month between the country's two biggest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer.

The good news is that there are no serious wars anywhere else in the world - except Syria, of course. But there are 120,000 dead in Syria, and more than a quarter of the population is living as refugees. The United States went to the brink of bombing the regime's important centres after poison gas was used in Damascus in August. But now there is nobody left for the US to back even if it wants to, because the larger rebel groups are rapidly falling under the influence of extreme Islamist organisations including al-Qaeda.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

- NZ Herald

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