The Assange, Snowden prisons
Independent on Sunday:
Five hundred years ago, he might have found himself in a church. In the middle ages, Edward Snowden, seeking sanctuary from charges of treason, would have thrown himself on God's mercy. Once across the holy threshold, he would have been untouchable by earthly justice.God is not weaker but some of the institutions of religious bodies are not what they once were. What we see is that their asylums are more like the instutiosn we once used to house the deranged. They are people with a very limited amount of freedom these days and even if they eventually get to their preferred destination, their range will still be limited and their existance will be very dangerous.
God is a bit weaker now, and so today's canny fugitive takes a more prosaic approach. If there is no higher law, he needs a lawless zone instead. If he is Edward Snowden, he heads for the airport. If he is Julian Assange, he heads for the embassy. His best hope is not heaven. It is limbo.
Why do we find Snowden and Assange such fascinating figures? They are postmodern outlaws, frustrated nomads who have given up the comforts of an ordinarily rooted life. They are compelling because their predicament is both horrifying and seductive. Most of us need our roots too much to embrace the dislocated life that they have come upon. And yet, even as the internet and affordable travel make the world smaller, the romance of the wanderer remains – and in particular of the wanderer who sets himself against powerful and impersonal forces.
But these would-be wanderers are confined. Grim though Assange's hiding place sounds, it is at least on a human scale. What of Snowden's? At least until new offers of asylum from Venezuela and Nicaragua come good, he is at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, "airside", in the "transit zone". These terms make me uneasy. They evoke something alien. In the "transit zone", where a man who would elsewhere be swiftly arrested can linger seemingly as long as he likes, the tenuous nature of our laws and nations and conventions is made explicit. You'll know what it's like if you've ever stood with a foot on either side of a border and felt – nothing. One almost expects there to be an accompanying physical sensation, evidence that our systems are tattooed into the ground. But there's not. The border is arbitrary. The political map is just a picture with lines drawn on it.
Sure enough, experts have reminded us this week that even the special status of the transit zone is entirely subject to the whim of the country in which it is based. After a year, at least Assange can feel confident in the international treaties that secure the status of an embassy. The privileges of Snowden's life airside, on the other hand, might be withdrawn at a moment's notice.
Although privileges may be the wrong word. The cage of Sheremetyevo does not sound particularly gilded. Snowden flew into terminal F from Hong Kong on 23 June, shortly before his passport was revoked by the US authorities.