Sunday, January 13, 2013
Failing Aaron Swartz
RIP: Aaron Swartz.
Aaron, the fiery internet revolutionary, contacted me after he was arrested. He wanted to better understand why the prosecutors were relentlessly targeting him and what he should do it.
I told him that it was impossible to comprehend why they had chosen to focus on him. He just had to deal with it. I unsuccessfully tried to convince him to take the original deal prosecutors offered because they rarely relented. He did not believe me when I assured him that it would easy for someone with his talents to rebuild his life after this dark period. He feared that his conviction would mute his megaphone although I kept telling him it would eventually be diminished to an asterisk after his name.
Swartz, who remained an idealist that believed at the 11th hour justice would prevail, refused to accept my view of American justice. He did not want to hear that juries behaved sheep like in their acceptance of the prosecutor's version of events. When I told him he could be convicted by a jury that had never heard of Reddit, he called me "too cynical".
I feel sad that I failed Aaron. I tended to get intense in our arguments. If I had stayed calm, he maybe would have listened better.
While Aaron's loss is final, society's loss is much bigger. We have lost a truly great thinker who had the passion and drive to make society more open.
While we can all take the easy way out and explain away his suicide by noting his depression, that would be a mistake and possibly the wrong interpretation. With the start of his trial nearing, Swartz did want to give his prosecutors the satisfaction of a victory. He feared that a victory would propel his torturer, the US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, to the Massachusetts Governor's office. He also knew that he would be unable to continue his important work and most likely would die in prison if convicted. He openly questioned whether life was worth living if he could not continue his work.
Too few people defended him before his death. No one seemed to care that an American could potentially be going to jail fro 30 years for allegedly stealing academic journals with a negligible value. It has become an unfortunate American meme that prosecutor's decisions to go unchallenged. If Aaron's death has any meaning, I hope that we began to question prosecutor's decision and demand proportionality in punishment.