(first published in the SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST)
Snowden has no island
'Sanctuary! Sanctuary!" is the pathetic cry of the title character, played by Charles Laughton in the1939 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame, when he frees the heroine from the hangman's noose and whisks her into the safety of sanctuary inside the cathedral, just in the nick of time.
The life and times of Victor Hugo were full of revolutionary turmoil, brutal injustice and futile defiance, yet his tales are not without life-affirming acts of asylum and grace. Finding sanctuary from the long arm of the law and vengeful officials was not just a literary theme, but a fact of his own life.
Hugo had to hole up in exile in liminal lands such as the Channel Islands to enjoy some autonomy from the domineering realms of France and England, though his unyielding defence of press freedom caused him trouble even in exile, and he was expelled from Jersey, finally settling in nearby Guernsey, where he composed Les Miserables.
Questions of sanctuary, and the quality of mercy, are very much in the news these days, given full court press of US President Barack Obama's manhunt for National Security Agency (NSA) "hacker" Edward Snowden, who revealed the president to be a tool of an out-of-control security state with an unquenchable thirst for secrets and secrecy. Mr Obama's New Cold War warriors deprive people of privacy in the name of security, saying that the law is on their side, when not hiding behind the cloak of state secrets.
The sheer, often-overbearing might of the US was on display when the plane of Bolivia President Morales was forced to land due to the suspicion that Mr Snowden might be on board. This heavy-handed wheeling and dealing to deny Mr Snowden asylum in this jet-patrolled, drone-prone and widely wiretapped world is a pox on Pax Americana.
A dingy airport transit lounge is as close as Mr Snowden has come to finding a cathedral hideaway, but his captors are honing in, ready to pounce.
Mr Snowden's early and repeated declaration of interest in going to Iceland is telling. Given a choice, he'd rather live in a small neutral country than play into the hands of great power rivals who sport robust spying systems of their own. But he has no way to get there.
So where can a principled fugitive from justice find sanctuary nowadays? Is there a single house of worship in the United States that isn't bugged, that couldn't be overrun by an aggressive Swat team? During the Vietnam War, Canada was North America's lofty cathedral, a recognised asylum for draft dodgers, a breezy alternative to the rough justice of imperialism. Are there any countries left in the world willing to be cathedral Canada today?
Many netizens knew early on that Facebook was full of privacy holes, but we trusted Skype until Mr Snowden told us not to. Was Skype's free-from-eavesdropping image crafted by deliberate misinformation? Mr Snowden's revelations not only showed the public that the two internet giants were untrustworthy, but that two presidents were too. George W Bush gets worse press than the charming Mr Obama, but their disregard for privacy is comparable; if anything, Mr Obama has been worse. They are the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum poster boys of the NSA's looking-glass world.
With bugging comes illicit knowledge and with illicit knowledge comes the power to blackmail. Not only is the US hoovering up the world's digital dirt, but in acting upon this ill-begotten information, Mr Obama is bringing back the ugly politics of J Edgar Hoover.
After a fortnight of US wheeling and dealing, countries who have unspoken reasons to fear US wrath, large and small, are suddenly out there doing the loyalty dance, rejecting in July the same political fugitive that their media outlets cheered so loudly in June. Look how quick little Ecuador got in line. Portugal and France caved, Brazil bowed out. Even the big government of India showed itself to be stuck in a colonial mentality. It's ludicrous claim that the US is "not snooping" reveals India's self-destructive desire to be more like the US, in the worst way possible. India is apeing the US security state, by shoring up a spy state of its own, designed to monitor the email and phones of at least 900 million people.
Even Russia's steely Vladimir Putin flip-flopped, saying Mr Snowden must stop "work aimed at harming our American partners". Partners? Partners in espionage? Was the Russian won over by Mr Obama's wily, poker-faced bluff, or did the US bring some special pressure to bear? Mr Putin can still save face and make a sop to popular opinion by allowing the "hacker" to move on unmolested. But where to?
Will Mr Snowden find a temporary Tahiti in Latin America, only to be served cold justice by the mean-spirited Captain Blighs of the US security state? Going back to the "land of the free" would lead to a life decidedly unfree, a land of handcuffs and a loaded trial, followed by incarceration, probably for life.
China remains the world power most capable of resisting US pressure, but it also ranks among the least sentimental about individuals who speak truth to power, despite its storied history of courtiers who upbraided unruly emperors. If the state-to-state summitry so popular in the world today speaks to anything, it is that one political machine tends to grasp the needs of another political machine better than the lone men and women who dare to stand up to the machine.
Where have all the Channel Islands gone?
For a young man with nothing left to lose, Snowden has shown considerable pluck, but also a kind of scrupulousness. By all evidence he has not been swayed by money nor expedience, choosing to hole up in a tiny room somewhere, rejecting the easy out accorded a defector, which he refers to as "petting the Phoenix".
Mr Snowden's revelations put pressure on the US, home to the biggest spying network the world has ever seen, to move from darkness to light, or in the immortal words of Victor Hugo, to move "from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life".
Philip Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics.