A year ago, Robert Philip Hanssen apparently felt the need to explain to the Russians his motives for supplying them with thousands of top-secret U.S. intelligence documents over the preceding decade and a half. The veteran FBI agent wrote them a letter, confessing that he is neither insanely brave, nor merely insane, but “insanely loyal” to his adolescent ideal of becoming “a new Kim Philby.”

A degenerate, Stalin-worshipping British traitor, boozing his fugitive days away in a Moscow apartment block, seems an odd choice of a role model for an American teenager. But to spend the next 40plus years acting out the fantasy, undetected and unsuspected—and then to confess it all to his invisible foreign contacts—is ridiculous. It sounds like a joke an overconfident Mr. Hanssen wanted to play on his paymasters. Hanssen appears to have been primarily loyal to his wallet—to the tune of $1.5 million in used, small notes and precious stones, spread over 15 years.

In return, this counterintelligence specialist—whose job was to keep an eye on the KGB in America —provided top quality goods. Just for starters, he identified three Russians working from the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., who had been recruited as double agents by the United States.

News reports invariably referred to Hanssen as a “spy.” They are wrong: He is a traitor. A spy is an American stealing Russian secrets or a Russian stealing American ones. Rudolph Abel and Gary Powers were spies; the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, Aldrich Ames, and Hanssen were not.

The fact that the networks and big dailies avoided the word “treason” is not surprising: It is a word inseparable from notions of honor, patriotism, loyalty, and other reactionary leftovers from pre-postmodern times. Even FBI director Louis Freeh made the curious remark that Hanssen’s conduct “represents the most traitorous actions imaginable against a country governed by the rule of law.” Did he mean that, in a country governed by the rule of a dictator, such actions would not have been so “traitorous”?

Espionage, the second-oldest profession, shares some basics with the oldest: deception and duplicity. Both call for similar talents, and top spies, like top prostitutes, may enjoy the aura of glamour tinged with danger. In certain temperamental types, both callings evoke a somewhat perverse excitement. Both spies and whores can be perfectly useful members of their societies — somewhat disrespectable, perhaps, but necessary nevertheless.

Treason, on the other hand, is more akin to adultery. Both involve betrayal and abuse of trust; unlike some adulterers, however, traitors are beyond redemption. Some apologists for Jonathan Pollard suggest that “treason” applies only to helping an enemy in time of war, not to “illegally helping an ally in peacetime.” This is the same as saying that an occasional tryst with one’s sister-in-law does not really count as “adultery.” A country that grants you the rights and privileges of citizenship also has an exclusive claim to your allegiance. This claim is doubled in the case of a Klaus Fuchs, who asked for and was given refuge from persecution by another government.

All traitors are bad, but not all are equal. As Rebecca West noted in The New Meaning of Treason (1964), the assorted would-be Quislings of World War II were at least open enemies of liberal democracy. Leon Degrelle, Anton Mussert, or Leo Amery were loath to burrow quietly into strategic spots so as to undermine their host society while professing allegiance to it. William Joyce, the Reich’s English radio voice, thought that Britain was right—albeit mistaken — to hang him. An RAF officer who had helped “Lord Haw-Haw” with his scripts (and got ten years for his efforts) burst out indignantly: “This just shows how rotten this democratic country is! The Germans would have had the honesty to shoot me!”

Communist traitors, by contrast, were sustained by their “ideology” of self-hatred masquerading as dialectical materialism. In England, they enjoyed a field day from the late 1930’s on, leaving a putrid trail that spanned five decades. Their elevated milieu, savoir-faire, and privileged status (Anthony Blunt), coupled with their access to strategic information and personnel (Philby), made them truly lethal to the prospects for Britain’s moral recovery. Money was neither here nor there. The inherently corrupt nature of the game itself served as a self-justifying microcosm of the society at large: manipulative, materialistic, depressingly sterile. The reward of betrayal was in the act itself, in the quiet superiority’ of grasping the uselessness and absurdity of it all, while persevering in the act until the end.

Aldrich Ames’s stated explanation (“it was all a game anyway”) ostensibly corresponded to this model, but with him and Hanssen, we see a new type altogether. The contemporary American traitor does not even pretend that he cares about ideas. “Exploitable weaknesses” that used to set off alarms with seasoned CIA and FBI campus recruiters are pervasive. Today, they would have to include the very fact of coming of age under Bill Clinton or attending public schools.

As the American nation is reduced by its rulers to an ever more diverse “proposition,” there is precious little anchorage for loyalty and honor—let alone readiness to make a supreme sacrifice. “I couldn’t do that” increasingly begs the question, “Why not?” Why not sell neutron-bomb blueprints to Osama bin Laden if Clinton didn’t mind the Chinese getting them? Why not transact a little business with the bad guys if it is OK for Marc Rich to do so?

That which is not worth dying for is not worth not betraying. Opportunity to act now equals temptation, and nothing is wrong per se. Robert Hanssen is no Kim Philby; he’s just a modern American.