Julian Assange‘s Swiss bank account just got closed. His website has been chased out of town. He can’t get donations through PayPal anymore. It’s amazing how fast this man’s world is shrinking after he embarrassed diplomats around the world.
I can’t help but notice that this same man, Julian Assange has previously revealed U.S. military secrets that ostensibly put soldiers and other individuals at risk. I can’t help but remember that our former president seemed not to be bothered when his own State Department leaked information that put a CIA agent, Valerie Plame at risk. What has suddenly changed to bring such swift action from the powers of the world? Perhaps it is that those who specialize in keeping and revealing secrets has had their own “craft” used against them.
I am not sure how I feel about Julian Assange. I’ve heard the arguments on both sides, and my interest is not to evaluate the merits of those arguments here.
This episode makes me want to reflect on the nature of secrets. I attended a high school that had been founded more than 100 years earlier with the motto: “Do Nothing On The Sly.” These words were already considered passe when I attended back in the 1970’s. Despite its out-of-fashion status, that motto carried a profound idea: If you never succumb to the temptation to hide your actions, then you are unlikely to ever do anything immoral or illegal. This motto acts like an ethical alarm whenever one is tempted to cover one’s tracks.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus implies that secrets are ultimately futile. He says, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17). Jesus is speaking eshatologically, I believe, but oftentimes we find that things we thought would remain secret end up being revealed long before Judgment Day. There is some inherent wisdom in this notion of doing nothing that we have to hide from others.
What if one were actually to live by my school’s motto? What if one refused to do anything on the sly or hidden? What if a nation were to function according to the idea that everything should be open for inspection by the public? It sounds terribly naive, doesn’t it? It’s easy for me to think of many excuses why doing some things on the sly is okay. But that motto has always nagged at me. Has our society bought into a form of corruption by playing the sophisticated game of state secrets and covert operations? Could a modern state survive without keeping secrets? Most everyone discussing the actions of Julian Assange assume that governments must keep secrets. I think it would be healthy for us to examine that assumption.