Edward Snowden has finally surfaced in that Moscow airport. He has reportedly requested temporary asylum in Russia until he can make arrangements to begin a more permanent arrangement in Venezuela.

Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported a poll in which “a majority of US registered voters consider Edward Snowden a whistle-blower, not a traitor, and a plurality says government anti-terrorism efforts have gone too far in restricting civil liberties.”

Karoli parsed the issue of spying a couple of weeks ago:

If you want to talk about private corporate contractors having access to national security information, I’m there.

If you want to talk about whether the tech hole which “allows but does not permit” access to the records of US persons should be closed, I’m there.

If you want to talk about limiting the scope of the Patriot Act and FISA, I’m there.

If you want to talk about how we should toss all efforts to protect national security out the window, or how it is all Obama’s fault when this has been going on for at least ten years, leave me out. That line of thinking serves no real purpose.

But what about Snowden? Is he a hero for confirming our suspicions that the Patriot Act has allowed the government egregious latitude in monitoring the communications of ordinary Americans? Or a traitor whose revelations have endangered the public?

Perhaps a little of both.

I was mesmerized yesterday by a Facebook discussion that I think represents the deep ambivalence so many of us feel when hearing the news of Snowden, the NSA, Prism, data mining and other programs enacted after 9/11 that clearly infringe on civil liberties guaranteed us in the Constitution. I’ve been given permission from two of the commenters to reprint their portion of the conversation here. (The rest of the discussion has been paraphrased.):

Roxane W: So let me be a bit persnickety here … I agree that restriction on civil liberties has gone too far. However, because Snowden took the job at Booz specificially to have a platform from which to gather and reveal this information, I see him as more of a traitor than a whistleblower. A friend is a former OSHA head who was a REAL whistleblower — came across some stuff in the course of his employment the he believed had to be unveiled, so he did, and suffered consequences for it (though was ultimately legally protected). Isn’t it different when someone seeks a position solely for that “gotcha” moment? Something doesn’t sit right with me about this guy …

Adrienne Van Houten: I agree Roxanne. I too see him more as a traitor than a “whistle blower” and feel he should be prosecuted as such.

But others in the conversation disagreed. Some pointed out that all we know about Snowden comes from a media that seems focused on reporting items about his personal life, as if they mean to discredit him. One pointed to this interview, where Snowden explains he doesn’t want to live in a world where everything is recorded.

Roxane: I don’t think we’re very far apart, here (and I do love talking about this one, very interesting philosophical questions): I care very much about the revelations. And I don’t care at all about his own personal life. But I do care about his motivations, who/what’s really behind it, and how he went about bringing this secret to light (again). From my perspective, even as a pretty fierce liberal, it’s not just the outcomes that matter — it’s the process. Doing something wrong to make a right in the end doesn’t make it okay — imagine that as law. What a mess it’d be, practically vigilante justice! I think if he were a dude already working at Booz saying “hey, I have a problem with the way the government is handling this” it’s laudable whistle-blowing — but that he sought out the job to expose this is just different. There are plenty of noble whistleblowers. He’s more like a mole. I talked with a guy on a plane yesterday about how if this happened in Pakistan as we were hunting Osama, and someone leaked his location and then sought cover in our country, would we have protected him or extradited him? It was an interesting question: what outcomes justify what means. What frustrates us all, I think, is that the conversation is about Snowden and not about our civil liberties. I’m 100% there, but I don’t want him not to matter because I don’t think he’s an example of how to do this, IMHO.

Adrienne:  His “revelations”? Do you really care if the Feds are tracking your calls or emails? I don’t. I want them to do that. And I don’t want anyone to know they are doing it. I call text and or email Pakistan and other countries where my various children live on a daily basis.

Some of the participants indicated that they do care about the NSA tracking program.

Roxane: I care that the government isn’t overt about it and feel that’s the kind of thing elections should be about, in part.

Adrienne: What is the use of doing it if they are going to be overt about it? Also, I believe pundits make things political more than the “government” does.

It was pointed out that when asked about spying on American citizens by Congress, the government lied about it.

Roxane:  It’s one thing to *know* we’re being spied on, and another to be lied to in a democracy. I’m not okay with lies.

Adrienne:  I admit, I haven’t read the article, nor have I heard any main stream media news stories. If I get a moment to breath I will read your link. My opinion is simply based on the fact that I really am not bothered by the government “spying” on me. Just as I am not bothered by TSA asking everyone to strip naked at the airport and do a cavity search if necessary.

As a progressive, I find this issue fascinating. We believe that government can be an instrument for good, but I think in this case, our beliefs overlap with the libertarian right who fear a government without oversight, secret trials and domestic spying.

If anything, Snowden’s revelations about the NSA have given us some new topics to discuss. And that’s a good start.