Snowden and the felt sense

Citizenfour won an Oscar for best documentary of 2015

A felt sense feels right despite the uncertainty of the circumstances. This illustrated in the documentary Citizenfour, a quiet, thoughtful, inspiring film about the week in June 2013 when Edward Snowden turned over thousands of classified NSA documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in a Hong Kong hotel room. Snowden was a contractor with the National Security Agency. He had become increasingly concerned about global surveillance programs run by the NSA with the cooperation of telecommunication companies. He wanted US citizens to know that their data was being turned over to the government, as it would be in China. 

“…every time you wrote an email, every time you typed something into that Google search box, every time your phone moved, you sent a text message, you made a phone call … the boundaries of the Fourth Amendment were being changed. This was without even the vast majority of members of Congress knowing about it. And this is when I start to think “Maybe we need to know about this, maybe if Congress knew about this, maybe if the courts knew about this, we would not have the same policies as the Chinese government.” *

Snowden had tried to raise his ethical concerns through internal channels at the NSA but had been ignored. He knew that he had to set up his revelations very carefully. Instead of the more random Wikileaks style, Snowden chose to turn his information over to Greenwald and Poitras, principled journalists who had, themselves, been subjects of surveillance. He trusted that they would not sensationalize the issue. He hoped that his revelations would open the subject for public debate.

By hoping to alert Americans to their loss of freedom, he was setting himself up to lose his freedom completely

When they met for the first time in Snowden’s hotel room, Poitras asked if she could film their interaction. We witness their first uneasy meeting. Snowden deals quietly and poignantly with having left his partner of many years, his job, and his family without having revealed to them any of his plans. He has stepped out into an action space, not knowing what would happen next.

Greenwald’s initial article was published in the Guardian, then Poitras’s article was published in the Washington Post. The next day, Snowden followed his plan to reveal his identity. He wanted people to know that the information was coming from a concerned citizen and not from some unpredictable rogue entity.

In the first part of the film, we get to know William Binney, a mathematician/cryptologist who devised a lot of the data-intercepting methods that are used today by the government. Binney had expected that his inventions would be used in a way consistent with the US constitution. However, he saw that after 9/11, data intercepting systems were used to track everyone, indiscriminately. He resigned on October 31, 2001 after 30 years with the NSA. The FBI interrogated Binney after he contributed to a 2005 New York Times exposé on warrentless eavesdropping. In July 2007, the FBI, raided his home. They confiscated his computer, discs and personal and business records. Citizenfour also documents congressional hearings and court cases in which NSA officials flatly deny or deflect surveillance charges. Snowden had a lot of examples of what can happen to people who protest NSA policies. 

To see someone put his life on the line like the 29-year-old Snowden, is quite compelling. We follow him day by day until his escape to the office of the UN High Commission on Refugees and his eventual exile in Russia. 

A cinematic example of felt sensing

I am interested in cultural examples of felt sensing. The slow, sensitive nature of this film shows Snowden listening to a felt sense. The felt sense can often be at odds with practicalities, but it leads to an inner sense of congruence and truth. 

From minute 56 to 58 of the film, there is a moment that illustrates what a felt sense can look like. After the journalists have revealed his identity (but not his whereabouts) to the media, Snowden gets some worrisome news from his girlfriend about government efforts to find him. He stands up, walks to the window, and stares silently outside for awhile.  Then he turns and says “It’s an unusual feeling that’s kind of hard to describe or convey in words. Not knowing what’s going to happen the next day, the next hour, the next week, is scary….. but at the same time it’s liberating. The planning comes a lot easier because you don’t have that many variables to put in play. You can only act and then act again.”

Here are the elements of felt sensing that you can see in these two minutes from Citizenfour. Snowdene pauses and senses inside as he stares out the window in silence. He notices a feeling that is hard to put into words. Like many of the most dynamic felt senses, it is multifaceted and paradoxical in nature. On one hand, the uncertainty of his situation is scary. On the other, it’s liberating. He is no longer planning things in his head. He knows he must just act, then act again.

Felt sensing can never be done by computers

This is why I teach Focusing and Thinking at the Edge. Not all of us have Edward Snowden’s courage and commitment to act on our conscience in a public way as he did. And yet we have many felt senses every day. Paying attention to our felt sense can help us act with integrity in situations large and small. In Citizenfour, we can see the simplicity and the clear direction that happens when Snowden gives expression to his implicit knowing. The felt sense feels right, despite the uncertain circumstances. 

As a species, we need to develop and trust this innately human felt sensing capacity. We all have it, and we can learn how to listen to it. Felt sensing can never be done by computers. It is not based on “the numbers” of probability. The felt sense gives us access to the whole of our situation, in all its implications, so that we can act as human beings.

Felt sensing helps us pay attention to what makes us human. Our humanity must always balance technology. Felt sensing reveals new and relevant truth, and when it does so, we feel free, liberated. Balancing our inner truth with our technological knowledge enables us to find new possibilities, far beyond probabilities that depend on what has gone before.

*Here’s a link to a recent interview with Snowden.

 

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