Philip Nolan knew nothing of Sheremetyevo airport, but he was an expert on isolation
We woke this morning to find that Edward Snowden (Mr. Around the World in Rrrrrrrrrrr! [sound of a screeching stop]) has been offered asylum first in Venezuela, and then in Nicaragua. Perhaps the only person entirely happy about this result may be John Logan, author of the next two James Bond films, who may now be inspired to include a scene of a world-famous leaker meeting an untimely fate at the end of bejeweled thong on the sun-struck beaches of Playa El Agua.
If Snowden can make his way to the Americas (hardly a given), we may learn the answer to one of the burning questions of the moment: what have you been doing all day, Ed? The possibilities of his treatment at Sheremetyevo airport range from detention-lite to a pleasant sterility, the sort of environment that George Clooney might have appreciated in Up in the Air. After almost two weeks, one might expect Snowden to have cleaned up his email folder, finished everything he’s downloaded to his e-reader, and finally got his fill of Diamond Mine.
Should he be scrounging for something else to read, he could do worse than to locate The Man Without A Country, a short story that was published in The Atlantic in December 1863. Written by Edward Everett Hale, the author and clergyman (and not his uncle Edward Everett, the author and orator, or Edward Everett Horton, the comic actor), The Man Without a Country tells the story of a young Army lieutenant Philip Nolan, who becomes friends with the nefarious Aaron Burr. When Burr is indicted for treason for ham-handedly trying to seize part of the Louisiana Territory for himself, Nolan is tried for treason, During the proceedings, he loses his temper, and renounces America. “I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” he shouts, and the judge sentences Nolan to his wish: he is to spend the rest of his life aboard United States Navy warships, in exile, with no right ever again to set foot on U.S. soil, and with explicit orders that no one shall ever mention his country to him again.
And so it happens. Nolan spends approximately fifty years aboard various vessels, never allowed to return to US soil. No one is allowed to speak to him about the United States, nor is he allowed to read anything about the country. Over the years, he repents his angry comments, and one day advices a young sailor to avoid his mistake: “Remember, boy, that behind all these men … behind officers and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country, and that you belong to her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by her, boy, as you would stand by your mother … !” At the end of the story, a dying Nolan shows invites an officer named Danforth to his room. It has become a patriotic shrine, with a flag, pictures of George Washington and a bald eagle. Danforth tells Nolan everything that happened to America since his sentence was imposed; the narrator confesses, however, that “I could not make up my mouth to tell him a word about this infernal rebellion,’’—the Civil War. When Nolan is found dead later that day, they find that he has written his own epitaph:
In memory of PHILIP NOLAN, Lieutenant in the army of the United States. He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands
Treacly stuff, in a way, yet quite moving in its sentimental power. The story was a Civil War story, designed to use sentiment and argument to show what the country as a whole, as opposed to the individual states, had achieved. I’d love to hear what Snowden thinks of the tale a few years from now, although generally speaking, those who possess the audacity to commit a great deed seldom have the audacity to reconsider it.
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