Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

When fact imitates fiction: The Snowden case

In the history of (especially moral) philosophy, a recurrent theme involves the tension between the affirmation of so-called “free will” on the part of humans, and its denial, or what is called (a variety of) “determinism”. Without going into too much detail, it seems to me safe to say that most philosophers have favoured free will when it comes to moral choice, and understandably so, because it would not make much sense to talk about morality or ethics if one does not presuppose the capacity to choose between right and wrong, good or evil.

As Kant observed in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, if humans are not capable of moral choice, we would be devilish or diabolical beings, caught in the delusion of (sometimes) doing good, when we are in fact promoting evil. Probably the staunchest defender of free will, Jean-Paul Sartre, claimed that freedom of the will is something we can never abjure, because even as we abnegate it, we exercise it: we are “doomed to be free”.

The case of Edward Snowden, unfolding in media space at present, casts this question of free will in an interesting light. If I understand things correctly, Snowden — who was working as a data analyst for a company contracted by the National Security Agency (NSA) (that is, a US government agency), and tasked to find and/or scrutinise a massive number of communications records of all kinds, from e-mail to Facebook — got to a point in his professional life where he suddenly discovered that he had a conscience. In other words, he found himself unable to proceed with what he had to admit to himself was, morally and constitutionally speaking, wrong and unacceptable.

It is constitutionally wrong in as far as it violates US citizens’ right to privacy (which we, in South Africa, lost with the introduction of Rica, by the way). Nevertheless, the NSA was probably not interested in people’s private affairs as much as in information that would comprise a Gestalt of sorts, a predictive pattern of communicational indications that something — some future actions bearing on “national security” — would (at best) probably flow from the intentions embodied in the communications involved.

Its moral reprehensiveness is therefore more complicated, because it involves the implicit denial of citizens’ (and non-US citizens’) free-will. Why? If one is placed under suspicion, or arrested and detained on the grounds that something you wrote in an e-mail, or said in a phone conversation to someone else, might be taken as a prognostication regarding future actions, it entails the implicit denial of your freedom to choose, to change your mind about something that may, or may not, have been intended, contemplated, or simply “idly said” by yourself.

This is not even to go into all the difficult questions of what would constitute conclusive incriminating communicational evidence of being a “security threat”. Sure, there are straightforward messages or letters, or perhaps less straightforward, encoded ones that could not easily be dismissed as clear or reliable instances of conspiracies to sabotage or otherwise undermine a country’s integrity. But where would it stop?

As the history of the persecution, by the Roman Catholic Church, of thousands of women as “witches” (during especially the 16th century) shows, once intent on finding incriminating evidence, any verbal or written utterance can be interpreted in various registers of ambiguity, to make it say what you want it to say. And once this has been done, you could be “conclusively” branded as a would-be witch (or “terrorist”), regardless of your intentions and future actions.

Does this reflection on “facts” not bring to mind a neo-noir fiction film by Steven Spielberg, namely Minority Report (2002), based on a story by Philip K Dick, in which a special police unit called PreCrime, arrests supposedly would-be criminals based on the “foreknowledge” of the crimes they will commit in the future, in this way supposedly pre-empting the crimes? This “foreknowledge” is supplied by three “precogs” — psychics with an uncanny gift to foretell the future — the philosophically interesting question being whether these future culprits or criminals are somehow robbed of their freedom to choose their own actions through the causality uncovered, and arguably triggered, by the precogs’ prophetic selection of such “future criminals”.

The narrative concerns the chief officer of the PreCrime department, Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise), who is himself fingered by the precogs as the future murderer of a man called Crow, and who discovers, through the department’s chief researcher on precog “technology”, that PreCrime routinely discards the “minority report” from the three precogs — the vision on the part of one of them which occasionally differs in its predictive specifications from the other two. The mere existence of such a “minority report”, of course, casts doubt on the causal value and accuracy of the precog-prophecy.

But there is more. When Anderton finds out from Agatha, the “leading” precog, who the person is that he is supposed to kill in the future, he sets out to find him, and although he also discovers that he has every reason to kill Crow (who was instrumental in the disappearance of Anderton’s son), he desists. Crow, however, commits “assisted suicide” by grabbing Anderton’s gun-hand and squeezing the trigger. This means that Anderton did not kill him (as was predicted by the precogs) by intention, but only by being the instrument of the killing. At the end of the film Anderton reveals to the true villain, Burgess, the “flaw” in the precog-related PreCrime system, which affirms human free will: if you “know”, on prophetic grounds, that you “will kill” someone, you can decide against it when the time arrives, as Anderton did.

The relevance of this neo-noir narrative — “neo-noir” because it thematises the question of the grounds of evil in an original manner — for the present furore around Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing act of defiance is this: Minority Report, where the freedom of human volition is narratively affirmed, shows that, even if future human actions could be made subject to the probable accuracy of “psychic” prediction, subjects concerned can decide against the predicted course of actions.

This insight, alone, should caution supporters of the Prism programme for early detection of “probable” security threats through the scrutiny of internet and telephonic communications, that whatever augury data analysts may read in certain communicational “patterns” (somewhat reminiscent of primitive rituals of prophecy, like reading the entrail-patterns of slaughtered animals), such putative portents are not cast in stone. Human beings are endowed with freedom of the will, and this means that it would be an irredeemable injustice to hold individuals accountable for actions they have not, and probably never will, commit.

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