End the idol worship: Ideas over men

Statue of Freedom

In the final minutes of the 2005 film, V for Vendetta, Peter Creedy, the head of the dystopian government’s secret police, fires several rounds into the Guy Fawkes-masked protagonist, V, fearing for his life.

“Why won’t you die?!” he shouts as his revolver reaches an empty chamber. “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh,” V says. “Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy. And ideas are bulletproof.”

While he got the attention of the repressed people of England and encouraged them to stand up against a cronyist government and the surveillance state, V was a faceless symbol of an idea — an idea he hoped would live on after he died.

Edward Snowden got Americans’ attention last June after he, through journalist Glenn Greenwald, blew the whistle on National Security Agency’s vast surveillance apparatus. The disclosures continued throughout the last year and will, reportedly, end with a grand finale in the coming days when Greenwald releases a list of names the controversial intelligence agency has targeted for spying.

Just last week, Snowden, who is living a seclusion in Russia, gave an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, the whistleblower’s first with a U.S.-based television network, in which, when asked, he said that he thought himself to be a patriot.

“Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your Constitution, knowing when to protect your countrymen from the violations and encroachments from adversaries,” Snowden told Williams. “And those adversaries don’t have to be foreign countries, they can be bad policies.”

The revelations about the extent of the federal government’s unconstitutional domestic surveillance are undeniably important. They’ve sparked a much-needed, long overdue debate over security versus privacy. The outrage over the NSA has sparked bipartisan backlash, aligning both conservatives and progressives on Capitol Hill to fight for reform and bring to an end the spying on Americans.

At the same time, however, we’ve got to remember that this is a battle is bigger than any one person. Too often, we become devoted to personalities, including figures like Snowden and/or politicians who say things with which we agree.

We can’t get so obsessed with personalities that we forget that it’s the ideas that matter. The idea that a government shouldn’t spy on its own citizens is, after all, what arbitrary searches of American colonists’ homes.

James Otis, who represented merchants during a legal challenge to general warrants in 1760, called them the “worst instance of arbitrary power.” John Adams, who was in the courtroom while Otis passionately spoke against this generation’s form of domestic surveillance, later said: “[T]he child independence was then and there born, [for] every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance.”

Ideas, including the right to privacy, are bigger than any one person or politician, and last long after they’re gone. The Founding Fathers, for example, instilled the idea that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Individual sovereignty and natural rights — the very foundation of what it means to be an American citizen — lived on in the Constitution and Bill of Rights and, although some would rather ignore them, continue to live today and they will outlast Edward Snowden.

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