eyes on the U.S.

What Watching Whistleblowers Tells Us About Ourselves

Why did he do that? And if you ever thought to do the same...?

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden
Rinny Gremaud

GENEVA - Why are the whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning making people so uncomfortable?

Here’s the story of a 29-year-old man living with his girlfriend in Hawaii, making $200,000 a year, who one day decides to set himself on fire professionally and socially in the name of democracy. When this man talks to the camera, he articulates his wish to no longer be the nodding cog in a devilish machine. It will cost him everything -- but such is the price to follow his “moral compass,” that ethical internal ear that is quite highly developed for the whistleblowers of his kind.

First reaction: Admiration. What an incredible display of abnegation, a true sense of self-sacrifice from this young man! This is what heroes are made of.

Then comes the slight collective feeling of awkwardness. Suspicion, even. There has to be something wrong in this man’s life, maybe that’s just how he is. Maybe it’s some kind of narcissism, paranoia perhaps, or just another guy with a Jesus complex. For all we know, his girlfriend had just dumped him or his boss said something mean to him and he overreacted. Who just snaps like that? Someone, we tell ourselves, who probably suffers from a great unidentified perversion.

What would you have done?

Edward Snowden, the man who brought the NSA to its knees, is about to be handed over to the two-bit psychological profilers. Details on his private life will leak soon enough, exposing to the world that the knight in shining armor is in fact flawed and that his motivations were not that noble. It happened to Bradley Manning, whose trial started a week ago. Brad Birkenfeld, who exposed fraud at Swiss bank UBS, had to go through the same process, but he got away with it quite well -- just like the other whistleblowers who all suffered from difficult social experiences.

One of them talked to the British daily The Guardian about the five nails on the whistleblower’s cross: 1) You’re ignored, 2) You’re discredited, 3) You’re fired, 4) You’re publicly shamed, 5) Your friends and family turn their backs on you.

All of this, for the record, is perfectly depicted by Michael Mann in the movie The Insider, the true story of Jeffrey Wigand, a former executive from the tobacco industry who had revealed his company’s manipulations to make sure the cigarettes were produced in a way to be ever more addictive.

Why are the whistleblowers making everyone uncomfortable? Probably because it’s the nature of our society to keep its distance with the insubordinate, those people who place their judgment above the rules of the community. But wait, there’s more to it. Maybe it’s this way of putting every one of us in front of our responsibilities. We end up asking ourselves: What would I have done if I were in his place? What kind of machinery am I fueling, doing what I do? Every single day I do what I’m told, but in the end, am I not contributing to making this world worse than it is? Is my salary a monthly bribe to keep my mouth shut? Should I ask for a raise?

I’m not writing this just for the bankers, the business lawyers, the tax specialists and the CIA agents reading this newspaper. The truth is we can all ask ourselves those questions. The tricky part is that with the twists of history, the shifting sands of power and laws, no one can ever be sure that he or she has the right answer.

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