Ed Snowden and Tom Hanks
Ed Snowden currently negotiating with Moscow Airport Customs Commissar
requesting a pass to see the Bolshoi Rockettes
Possibly Edward Snowden has other things on his mind today than the forthcoming 50th anniversary of the great train robbery. Yet the events of that August night in 1963, soon to be commemorated in a blizzard of television programmes and republished memoirs, have great relevance for a man on the run and serve as an illustration of how life has changed over the last half-century for would-be escapologists.
Hong Kong, Moscow, Havana, Caracas, Quito – already the luggage labels for Snowden’s real or projected destinations have an exotic feel to them. Paris, Acapulco, Australia, Brazil, Canada carry almost the same whiff of glamour and they were the places where, either briefly or for years, three of the main train robbers – Ronnie Biggs, Bruce Reynolds and Charlie Wilson – managed to hide out before fate or illness eventually caught up with them. But the relative ease with which, for instance Biggs, was able to start a new life with his family in Australia, after a side-trip for some plastic surgery in Paris, demonstrates how much more difficult it is these days to carry out a disappearing act.
There are, of course, two main reasons for the problems faced now by Snowden and other runaways of his generation: the internet and 24-hour rolling news. Fifty years ago, a man on the run might expect his photo to appear in his own country’s papers for a day or two then slip from view. The rest of the world would have little interest in him. Now Snowden’s image has flashed around the world, available for anyone in China or Latin America or Russia to see. And the relentless non-stop coverage of major events, both on cable channels and newspaper websites, means that his image is rocketing its way round the globe every second.
Nor is there much hope for someone on the run that their pursuit will ever quite end. British villains hiding out in Spain these days, as Andrew Moran has just discovered when he was nicked at his “luxury villa” in Calpe, can expect to see themselves on Crimestoppers’ internet-available wanted list. In the United States, in 1999, a woman known to her friends and neighbours as Sara Jane Olson living with her family in Minnesota, suddenly found herself arrested for being a member nearly 30 years earlier of the urban guerilla group, the Symbionese Liberation Army – the crew that kidnapped Patty Hearst. She had been identified after her image had appeared on America’s Most Wanted televsion show.
Two other factors have come into play that make life on the run harder. First, as it has become easier to act as an anonymous informer, the old “good luck to them” spirit of sympathy for the person on the run seems to have dissipated. While many may wish Snowden well in his bid to avoid spending the rest of his life behind bars, there are plenty others who would be more than happy to shop him; we live in less forgiving times.
The other factor is that governments have become more vindictive in their pursuit of those who have had the effrontery to tell the truth about their activities. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, was lucky not to be spend decades behind bars, but Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear whistleblower, was hunted down, lured to Italy, kidnapped and drugged for revealing his country’s nuclear weapons programme.
By charging Snowden with espionage, when it is clear to everyone apart from a few useful idiots at Fox News that Snowden is no spy, the United States government has made it clear that they will put great effort into chasing him down.
For journalists, too, the game of tracking down the escaper has changed. That strange photo of a posse of reporters at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, clutching photos of Snowden to show to fellow-passengers, is an another example of how things have changed. Garth Gibbs, the Daily Mirror journalist who died a couple of years ago, used to claim cheerfully that he had not found the missing Lord Lucan in more places – from Cape Town to the Bahamas to Macau – than anyone else. Now Snowden’s every move is plotted. So there is little chance for an imaginative reporter to hop off abroad on the basis of a speculative tip.
At Bruce Reynolds’s funeral a few weeks ago, Ronnie Biggs gave a cheery two-fingered sign to waiting photographers, and, by association, the British establishment. Biggs had been able to evade the authorities for three decades by fathering a Brazilian son (Brazilian law at the time didn’t allow the extradition of a father of Brazilian child). Edward Snowden must be wishing that life was as simple today.