“Whenever the offence inspires less horror than the punishment, the rigor of penal law is obliged to give way to the common feelings of mankind.”
- Edward Gibbon, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”
Many of you have likely never heard of Aaron Swartz. Everyone should know about Aaron Swartz, who he was, what he did, and why he did what he did. He exemplifies the very notion of what we understand by the meaning of “heroic.” Unfortunately, Aaron is no longer with us. And make no mistake about it. Swartz was hounded to his death by the government not for what he did, but the why of what he was doing, and the cause he and those efforts represented.
The man is a hero, one who didn’t just talk the talk (like I feel myself all-too-guilty of too often), but who actually laid it on the line, full on. He shunned the rewards and easy life that society was easily offering him, in order to dedicate his work towards goals and purposes thoroughly beyond self-absorbed careerism and the wealth and fame it was readily on hand to provide to him.
He is a man who gave up his own freedom for that of others. That rates as a concrete definition of true heroism in my book.
Glenn Greenwald provides an insightful and poignant tribute to Swartz, to his courage and passion, and the importance of his life and his work towards pushing forward efforts in making for a more humane and just world.
At the age of 14, Swartz played a key role in developing the RSS software that is still widely used to enable people to manage what they read on the internet. As a teenager, he also played a vital role in the creation of Reddit, the wildly popular social networking news site.
His path to internet mogul status and the great riches it entails was clear, easy and virtually guaranteed: a path which so many other young internet entrepreneurs have found irresistible, monomaniacally devoting themselves to making more and more money long after they have more than they could ever hope to spend. But rather obviously, Swartz had little interest in devoting his life to his own material enrichment, despite how easy it would have been for him.
Specifically, he committed himself to the causes in which he so passionately believed: internet freedom, civil liberties, making information and knowledge as available as possible.
Swartz’s activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles - namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it - and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information. In that above-referenced speech on SOPA, Swartz discussed the grave dangers to internet freedom and free expression and assembly posed by the government’s efforts to control the internet with expansive interpretations of copyright law and other weapons to limit access to information.
That’s a major part of why I consider him heroic. He wasn’t merely sacrificing himself for a cause. It was a cause of supreme importance to people and movements around the world - internet freedom - and he did it by knowingly confronting the most powerful state and corporate factions because he concluded that was the only way to achieve these ends.
Whatever else is true, Swartz was destroyed by a “justice” system that fully protects the most egregious criminals as long as they are members of or useful to the nation’s most powerful factions, but punishes with incomparable mercilessness and harshness those who lack power and, most of all, those who challenge power.
Swartz knew all of this. But he forged ahead anyway. He could have easily opted for a life of great personal wealth, status, prestige and comfort. He chose instead to fight - selflessly, with conviction and purpose, and at great risk to himself - for noble causes to which he was passionately devoted. That, to me, isn’t an example of heroism; it’s the embodiment of it, its purest expression. It’s the attribute our country has been most lacking.
Read the full piece Here.
And his hounding and persecution by a criminal “justice” system, one rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach proved a key factor in driving him to the brink. The government’s prosecution should be considered a serious warning light about where its real priorities are. It should also serve as a call for people to organize a response against those who enabled this, and shame them from ever holding any office or trust of public responsibility again.
As the Official Statement from the Family and Partner of Aaron Swartz explained…
Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.
Swartz understood, as do many of his contemporaries, that control of the internet, and freedom of information and communication, is the nexus point of all human freedom and rights in our modern, mass-mediated technological age.
The cruel injustice and hypocrisy of the American government’s hounding prosecution of Swartz for his alleged “crimes,” is brought into stark relief by the comments regarding Swartz by “andreasma,” who posted them on Lawrence Lessig’s blog. I am re-posting them here in their entirety…
Aaron, Manning, Assange, Kyriakoy, Occupy, all persecuted, hounded, some tortured. For what? For speaking truth to power, for revealing corruption, war crimes. For liberating information.
Meanwhile, Yoo, Addington, Libby, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzales go around signing book covers and giving lectures about national security. The murderers, torturers and torture apologists are celebrated. The whistleblowers crushed.
Blankfein, Greenberg, Pandit, Mozilo, Geithner, go around lecturing us about financial responsibility, instead of rotting in jail for fraud, theft, embezzlement, corruption, bribery and multiple criminal conspiracies.
This is the disgusting injustice the underlies Aaron Swartz’s death. A Department of Justice that makes a mockery of the word “justice”, where the rule of law has become a joke, where the greatest criminals of our day wear ties and suits and are *absolutely beyond prosecution*, while the poorest get relentless, unforgiving, zero tolerance prosecution for the tiniest of misdeamenors.
Aaron was cursed with the ability to open his mind wide enough to see the world in all its ugly injustice and reality. His idealism, passion and honesty made him speak truth to power, so he was crushed.
There are only two crimes that are punished in this country now: being poor or challenging the powerful.
May lasting shame haunt those who are responsible for the criminal injustice that infects our society today.