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 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?