Tom Harbold: Slippery slopes demand caution

Last week, Pfc. Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his unauthorized disclosure of classified documents, despite being acquitted on the most serious charge of aiding the enemy. He plans to appeal to President Obama for a pardon.
In a statement released following his sentencing, Manning asserted, "The decisions that I made in 2010 were made out of a concern for my country and the world that we live in. ... Patriotism is often the cry extolled when morally questionable acts are advocated by those in power. When these cries of patriotism drown out any logically based dissension, it is usually the American soldier that is given the order to carry out some ill-conceived mission.
"I understand that my actions violated the law. I regret if my actions hurt anyone or harmed the United States. It was never my intent to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people. When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.
"If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal."
Intelligent men and women of good will can debate whether these are the words of a vile traitor deserving of harsh punishment, or of a patriotic whistle-blower deserving of pardon and, perhaps, praise. Meanwhile, fellow leaker Edward Snowden, a contractor for the once super-secret National Security Agency, remains in what is described as "temporary asylum" in Russia. His unauthorized disclosures have shed what the UK journal The Guardian has called "unprecedented light on the scale and sophistication of surveillance on both sides of the Atlantic - and the secret laws underpinning such programmes [sic]."
I don't know about you, but any reference to "secret laws" sends up at least a yellow flag for me, if not a red one. And when you start looking into the specifics, it just gets more alarming.
Now, I fully realize that even the most intrusive aims and methods of the growing security-surveillance state are directed toward al-Qaida and their ilk, at least at present. I get that. But it's the law of unintended consequences that has me concerned.
Case in point: I am a life member of the National Rifle Association. All the way back in 2009, a controversial Department of Homeland Security report included NRA members on a list of "potential terrorist threats," along with veterans and gun collectors. I'm sure that a fair number of my readers fall into at least one of these categories. During the Bush administration, it was members of environmental groups like Greenpeace that were suspected of terrorist leanings.
My point is, I hope, obvious. We need to be very careful what precedents we set, because we cannot control the future. Actions which are now directed only against organizations and individuals we can all agree are terrorist threats - al-Qaida and their ilk - could be used in the future to neutralize political adversaries. We need to be cautious about what slippery slopes we embark upon, particularly when they involve abridging the rights of American citizens.
That is why, on the whole, I am more glad than otherwise that whistle-blowers like Manning and Snowden exist, and that Manning received a sentence which, while stiff, is a good deal less stiff than it could have been.
Governments need to be kept on their toes, and reminded that they work for their people, not the other way around. That most emphatically includes our own.