Straddling the Divide Between Karen Silkwood and Edward Snowden in 'The Whistleblower's Dilemma'

by Jedd Beaudoin

6 April 2016

While the Snowden chapters are often, at best, worthy of a cursory skim, virtually every word about Silkwood here is captivating,
 
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The Whistleblower's Dilemma: Snowden, Silkwood and Their Quest for the Truth

Richard Rashke

(Delphinium)
US: Dec 2015

In The Whistleblower’s Dilemma: Snowden, Silkwood and Their Quest for the Truth, author Richard Rashke attempts to demonstrate not only what drove both Karen Silkwood and Edward Snowden to become whistleblowers, but how that decision changed their lives. The author hopes to probe the public perception of both these figures and emerge with a portrait of two people whose actions were brave, even heroic.

For some, the comparison between these two figures will be problematic because in many ways Snowden and Silkwood, although undeniably bold in their moves, seem to come from such different spheres that their similarities will prove peripheral at best. At the same time, they have both become folk heroes who have raised concerns about the health and safety (respectively) of the average citizen. 

Karen Silkwood died in a mysterious 1974 while on her way to meet a New York Times reporter. Evidence strongly suggests that her car was forced off the road and into a ditch as she made short trip from Crescent, Oklahoma to Oklahoma City. Documents she was known to be carrying with her that day mysteriously disappeared from her vehicle. She would have exposed her employer, Kerr-McGee, for violating safety standards at its plutonium production plant in Crescent. The company was endangering the lives of its workers and the lives of countless citizens by ignoring these standards.

After her death, Silkwood’s family filed a lawsuit against Kerr-McGee. Many of the claims that she was making against the corporation in the months and weeks leading up to her death were demonstrated to be true and by the end of 1975, the plant where she worked was shuttered forever.

Snowden gained notoriety after leaking National Security Agency (NSA) documents which revealed that the United States government was collecting vast amounts of data about people worldwide. These revelations, which came to light in 2013, showed that the collection of this data was an overextension of normal intelligence gathering.

Shouts came from many corners that the NSA had violated the Constitution. Others reviled Snowden for his actions while certain members of the press practically called for his coronation. He has since sought asylum in Russia for fear of what might become of him at the hands of his own government.

Rashke suggests that Snowden faces either a very long prison term or death at the hands of assassins. Perhaps, he suggests, those assassins could even be agents of Snowden’s own government. If this seems merely the talk of a paranoid radical, it’s important to keep in mind that there were two federal and at least two state agencies displaying intense interest in Silkwood at the time of her death.

Rashke has explored some of these elements before in his book, The Killing of Karen Silkwood, and at times it become difficult to determine why we’re reading a new work that treads much of the same path. Perhaps it’s in part to correct the idea that whistleblowers are often disgruntled radicals.

Silkwood was not, Rashke writes, “the rabid antinuke activist that the FBI and her enemies tried to make her out to be.” He adds that there’s an important distinction to be made about her: She wasn’t against nuclear energy but instead against corruption, abuse and the reality that plutonium was a danger to those who worked in its shadow. According to this book, Silkwood’s exposure to plutonium was so high that she was “married to cancer”.

If she wasn’t determined to destroy the industry in which she worked but instead improve its standards and practices, Snowden was not eager to destroy the NSA, either. Rashke offers that Snowden “championed the people’s right to know what the government was doing in their name.” But this is perhaps a more difficult aim to wrap one’s head around because it’s highly abstract. It’s likely that many have resigned themselves to the idea that they will be looked in upon by their government and, after all, they are in some ways willingly participating in the surveillance by using electronic monetary transactions, communicating through telephone, email and other traceable platforms. Yes, the government may be collecting that data ,but surely it’s so vast that it seems unlikely it could do anything meaningful with it.

Nuclear energy, on the other hand, is a more alarming and in some ways immediate concern. One need only look to Japan in World War II, Three Mile Island, or Chernobyl to see the real devastation it can bring.

The division between these worlds becomes clear as the author dedicates a chapter to the motivations of both Silkwood and Snowden. Whereas the chapter dedicated to the why of Silkwood’s case, and is rooted in examples that seem grounded in the subject’s behavior, the chapter dedicated to the why of Snowden’s actions ends with a long quote from Snowden that is, more or less, about “doing the right thing”, about being the first to point out the faults of one’s government. Perhaps this is noble, but it seems clumsy to leave the conclusion of that chapter in the subject’s own hands, for the author to not intervene with some solid analysis.

And that underlines a larger problem, which is a factor of time. When one considers that Silkwood’s death occurred more than 40 years ago, one is able to see how time has told her story better than she probably could have herself. We can see the inevitable problems of an industry not reigned in at the proper time.

Today, we probably believe more than ever that corporations are unlikely to follow guidelines set down by our government and we are probably equally unlikely to believe that violating procedures will yield an accurate punishment. This makes Silkwood’s story all the more tragic. All we can do now is look back and say that her death is unsurprising and that all the deaths that have come as the result of corporate carelessness are equally senseless and stand as reminders that we need to demand more responsibility out of such industries.

Snowden’s quest for justice, however, still seems fresh, and it’s harder to see if he did something that will protect us all or whether he did something that in the end will have little impact on how we lead our lives. For a nation that survived Nixon and Hoover, this seems like little more than proof that the old devils are at it again.

These are the same devils, perhaps, that Rashke quotes as wanting to do harm to Snowden. He cites a Special Forces officer who “would love to put a bullet in [Snowden’s] head” and an NSA analyst who suggests that there are many who would kill Snowden if given the chance. It’s hard to know if they’re talking in the abstract, like the leatherneck history teacher who suggests Occupy protestors need a good smack in the mouth.

Rashke spends two whole chapters discussing the demonization of Snowden, but the charges leveled against the exile (Traitor! Spy!) are unsurprising, enough so that Rashke wonders, almost aloud, if anyone really cares what went down in this case. That, too, is another problematic element of this work: Snowden exists in a time when scandals of various magnitude drift in and out of our lives like college study partners. Snowden, Benghazi, Hilary Clinton’s emails and the Flint, Michigan water crisis probably swirl around in many heads like NBC’s Fall 1995 Wednesday night lineup.

Frankly, it becomes difficult to continue reading the Snowden chapters as they are often, at best, worthy of a cursory skim. Virtually every word about Silkwood, however, is captivating, and one waits for her return throughout this book the way one might wait for a beloved character in a novel. Indeed, Rashke’s case for comparison is as thin as the pages of this book: these are two people who took radical actions in the hopes of improving the world they lived in. But those worlds and those actions have enough distance between them that it’s hard to find those similarities, and so interest in one wanes while the other, a figure gone more than 40 years now, steals the show with her honesty and ambitions— so much so that we have no choice but to once more mourn her death.

Snowden, for one reason or another, at least in the way he’s portrayed here, doesn’t have those qualities, and while that may be a cruel fate, such is the way of the world.

The Whistleblower's Dilemma: Snowden, Silkwood and Their Quest for the Truth

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