In America today, two figures have emerged who, at first glance, appear to have nothing to do with one another:
Edward Snowden and Trayvon Martin. Accused of leaking secrets on America’s massive surveillance program on its own citizens, Snowden has been stripped of his passport, and remains stuck in the Moscow airport, currently awaiting asylum. Martin was the young African-American shot dead after he was spotted walking home by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman in Florida. In his trial, Zimmerman claimed self-defense; he was acquitted despite having stalked Martin, angering many who see this case as yet another instance of racial injustice.
Martin and Snowden: two different men—one Black, one White, their stories unfolding in separate spheres, one transnational, the other highly local. Yet both have struck deep chords in America and all over the world. They brush against each other, creating sparks that flash, revealing certain patterns, only to dissipate into the ether. Is it possible to catch a glimpse of these sparks before they disappear entirely?
Joining their stories is the link between surveillance and secrecy. Snowden has confirmed what many have already suspected: State surveillance has gone rogue. Waging permanent war requires ever more information on every single individual. The need for infinite intelligence means that everyone is rendered suspect, guilty until proven innocent. The effect has been to erode the already frayed boundary between the public and the private. Indeed, the uproar over the state’s spying has to do with the fear of losing our right to privacy. We can no longer keep secrets from the state. Instead, it is the state that now claims the sole monopoly over the right to secrecy. Losing control over our secrets, we lose the right to hold back parts of ourselves from indiscriminate use by others. To be seen as wholly transparent, our inner lives reduced to a cluster of codes: This is the true scandal. At stake in the loss of the right to secrecy is nothing less than the right to lie: to prevaricate, to invent other worlds, to seek refuge in fictions that assuage and inspire, that prophesy or frustrate futures yet to come.
It is this loss that is revealed in Snowden’s fate. He has shown the extent to which the National Security State has colonized the life-worlds of the very people it seeks to protect, blurring the lines between the guilty and the innocent. Today, this colonizing power of the state is dramatically manifested in the world by the surge of drone warfare. Unmanned and faceless machines hovering indefinitely across borders, drones respect neither the distance nor the variety of human lives below. They embody the disembodied power of the American empire to deal death in and through its unlimited and unwarranted capacity to collect information.
Penetrating walls and bodies, drones destroy any sense of secrecy, violently depriving humans of their capacity to keep things for themselves and hold them in reserve for the future. They spread terror by promising to deliver death, but withhold the exact time and the place of their delivery. For those below, drones come to hold the secret of their death, lending to American imperialism an apocalyptic quality.
The destructive effect of drone warfare on secrecy and their human agents links the story of Snowden to Martin. Some scholars have compared Martin’s killer to a drone. As a neighborhood watchman, Zimmerman constantly looked for targets, obsessively gathering information on those he thought to be real or potential enemies: young Black men. Rather than a lone wolf, he saw himself as an agent of the state, reporting to authorities and seeking their aid. His suspicions were aroused when he saw Martin walking home, wearing a hoodie to keep from getting wet in the rain, but also from being seen. Inflamed by Martin’s claim to privacy, beginning with the right to do as he wanted with his body—a right historically denied to Black people by the history of slavery—Zimmerman went into action. Like a drone, he hovered, gathered intel, then struck. The police concluded that he was within his rights to kill Martin, solely on the basis of a perceived “threat.”
Pressure from civil rights groups compelled Florida’s prosecutor to arrest and try him. However, it was Martin who ended up being put on trial, defined by Zimmerman’s defense as a public menace. Martin was pronounced guilty of his own death, while his killer, claiming self-defense, walked free.
Standing his ground, Zimmerman enacted a version of the doctrine of preemptive war central to the “war on terror.” After gathering information on what he deemed to be a potential threat, he acted like a drone. Designed to carry out targeted assassinations, drones often end up killing indiscriminately. Backed by Florida law, Zimmerman ended the life of an innocent man, even as he claimed to be saving his neighborhood from possible criminal attacks. Murder was authorized in the name of national security in one case, and White safety in another. Both, too, determined their targets by first racially profiling them: radical Muslims in one case, young Black men in another. Finally, both took exception to the right of secrecy of their enemies. Assuming to know exactly who they were and what they were doing, both rendered their targets transparent, zeroing in on them to reduce them to zeros.
A final observation: while Martin is dead, Snowden is alive. Martyred, the former has spurred calls for racial justice, understood as the recognition of Black people as full citizens with the same rights to privacy. It is a right that is coextensive with the right to secrecy and thus to a future—or, recalling Martin Luther King Jr., to a dream—other than that scripted by those in power. For Snowden, it is a different, but related, matter. His case raises a series of questions. Does the state have the right to monopolize secrecy? Can it expect everyone, citizens and noncitizens alike, at least in the United States, to be fully searchable without itself submitting to responsible searches? Should it be allowed to occupy our inner lives in the same way it occupies the futures of those it subjects to drone warfare?
In broaching these questions, Snowden has been cast as a traitor and stripped of his citizenship. In US history, those who have been put in a similar position—of betraying the secrets of those in power, seeking to escape their captivity, becoming fugitives whose return to their owners was mandated by the state—have been slaves. As anticitizens, slaves defined the very limits of freedom, Whitening its inner region while Blackening its outer extremes. Could we say that the official discourse on Snowden draws on this long tradition of racializing citizenship: of casting him as a fugitive from the law which has traditionally guaranteed White safety and security at the expense of non-White Others? Could we say that within the American imperial and racial nexus, Edward Snowden, despite his obvious differences from Trayvon Martin, might also share his fate?
Vicente L. Rafael is a professor of history at the University of Washington, Seattle.