If there is no higher law, the fugitive needs a lawless zone instead
London, 7 July
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? 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 The privileges of Snowden’s life airside, on the other hand, might be withdrawn at a moment’s notice.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.
Terminal F is described by a reviewer on airlinequality.com as an ‘awful prison’, but it is at least connected by a mile-long walkway to terminals D and E, which are said to be better appointed. Enterprising journalists who have flown into Sheremetyevo in the hope of finding Snowden have so far failed to do so. This may be because of a relatively unusual feature of the airport, the airside wing of the Novotel hotel, where passengers in transit without Russian visas are permitted to stay.
An AP reporter who spent a night there in search of Snowden called every room he could, to no avail; his efforts to seek him out in person were thwarted by the security guard stationed outside his door. He could be in the hotel, yes. But he could be in the airport’s detention quarters, so infamous that they once featured in the UNHCR’s guide to the problems facing the world’s refugees; he could be paying $20 an hour for a spot in a VIP lounge; he could be browsing the duty-free matryoshkas, somehow unseen by the world’s press; he could be somewhere else altogether. For the time being, at least, he is out of reach.
The uncertainty over Snowden’s whereabouts only makes the question of what his life might be like at the moment more tantalising.
If he is Lennon’s Nowhere Man~ ‘sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans’, someone who ‘doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to’ ~ the airport is maybe the quintessential example of what have been called ‘non-places’.
Whether cosiness is important to Snowden, who, it has been said, can be happy anywhere he can get online, is hard to know. If new offers of help materialise, he may not be at the airport for very much longer.m Assange, meanwhile, must be losing his will to stay in a prison of his own construction, even if the alternative is one of rather less hypothetical limits. But perhaps such people last longer in these circumstances than the rest of us might.
Uniquely modern fugitives, they are taking refuge in uniquely modern spaces. It’s not a coincidence that they are also both men of the Internet, a space like the airport terminal or the embassy where the conventional rules don’t apply; a space of all nations, and of none; a space where your home is simply the first page you land on, a jumping-off point for a journey into the unknown. the independent