My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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processing the loss of Aaron Swartz

The last 24 hours have been an emotional roller coaster. I woke up yesterday to find that a friend of mine – Aaron Swartz – had taken his life. My Twitter feed went into mourning – shock, sadness, anger, revenge. I spent the day talking with friends who were all in various states of disarray. I watched as many of them poured out their hearts on their blogs, a practice we’ve all been doing for over a decade. And yet, I couldn’t find the words to express what I’ve been feeling. When I tweeted yesterday about being angry, well-meaning friends and mental health experts who didn’t know Aaron wrote to me about how I couldn’t be responsible for someone’s depression. This made me want to scream. I decided to write this blog post instead. It is raw and imperfect, but that’s where I’m at right now.

For better or worse, I’ve known a lot of people over the years who have committed suicide. I’ve watched people struggle through serious depression and then make that choice. Having battled my own demons, I understood. Part of why Aaron’s death hit me like a rock is because this time it was different.

There’s no doubt in my mind that depression was a factor. I adored Aaron because he was an emotional whirlwind – a cranky bastard and a manic savant. Our conversations had an ethereal sense to them and he pushed me hard to think through complex issues as we debated. He had an intellectual range that awed me and a kitten’s sense of curiosity. But when he was feeling destructive, he used his astute understandings of people to find their weak spots and poke them where it hurt. Especially the people he loved the most. He saw himself as an amateur sociologist because he was enamored with how people worked and we argued over the need for rigor, the need for formal training. He had no patience for people who were intellectually slower than him and he failed to appreciate what could be gained by a university setting. Instead, he wanted to mainline books and live in the world of the mind.

I’ve known Aaron for nine years and I both adored him to pieces and found him frustrating as hell. In recent years, our connection grew more sporadic because I loved the ups but really struggled with the downs. But when the arrest happened, I grew very worried about him. We decided never to talk about the case itself, but amidst brainjams, we’d joke about him finally getting his degree in jail as a way to relieve the pressure. I promised to curate an educational plan built off of great pieces of scholarship and told him I’d send him a printout from JSTOR each day. I knew he was struggling, but he was also a passionate activist and I genuinely thought that would see him through this dark period.

What made me so overwhelmingly angry yesterday was the same thing that has been boiling in my gut for the last two years. When the federal government went after him – and MIT sheepishly played along – they weren’t treating him as a person who may or may not have done something stupid. He was an example. And the reason they threw the book at him wasn’t to teach him a lesson, but to make a point to the entire Cambridge hacker community that they were p0wned. It was a threat that had nothing to do with justice and everything to do with a broader battle over systemic power. In recent years, hackers have challenged the status quo and called into question the legitimacy of countless political actions. Their means may have been questionable, but their intentions have been valiant. The whole point of a functioning democracy is to always question the uses and abuses of power in order to prevent tyranny from emerging. Over the last few years, we’ve seen hackers demonized as anti-democratic even though so many of them see themselves as contemporary freedom fighters. And those in power used Aaron, reframing his information liberation project as a story of vicious hackers whose terroristic acts are meant to destroy democracy.

Reasonable people can disagree about tactics and where and when a particular approach pushes too far. Like Lessig, I often disagreed with Aaron about his particular approach to freeing the world’s information, even if I never disagreed with him about the goal. And one of the reasons why so many hackers and geeks spent yesterday raging against the machine is because so many people in power have been unable to see past the particular acts and understand the intentions and activism. So much public effort has been put into controlling and harmonizing geek resistance, squashing the rebellion, and punishing whoever authorities can get their hands on. But most geeks operate in gray zones, making it hard for them to be pinned down and charged. It’s in this context that Aaron’s stunt gave federal agents enough evidence to bring him to trial to use him as an example. They used their power to silence him and publicly condemn him even before the trial even began.

Yesterday, there was an outpouring of information about his case, including an amazing account from the defense’s expert witness. Many people asked why people didn’t speak up before. I can only explain my reasoning. I was too scared to speak publicly for fear of how my words might be used against him. And I was too scared to get embroiled in the witch hunt that I’ve watched happen over the last three years. Because it hasn’t been about justice or national security. It’s been about power. And it’s at the heart and soul of why the Obama administration has been a soul crushing disappointment to me. I’ve gotten into a ridiculous number of fights over the last couple of years with folks in the administration over the treatment of geeks and the misunderstanding of hackers, but I could never figure how to make a difference on that front. This was a source of serious frustration for me, even as SOPA/PIPA showed that geeks could make a difference.

So here we are today, the world lacking a prodigious child whose intellect scared the shit out of everyone who knew him. He became a toy for a government set on showing their strength. And they bullied him and preyed on his weaknesses and sought to break him. And they did. All for the performance of justice. All before he was even tried in a society that prides itself on innocent until proven guilty. Was depression key to what happened on Friday? Certainly. But it wasn’t the whole story. And that’s what makes it hard for me to stomach.

There is a lot of justifiable outrage out there. Many people want the heads of the key administrators who helped create the context in which Aaron took his life. I completely understand where they’re coming from. But I also fear the likelihood that Aaron will be turned into a martyr, an abstraction of a geek activist destroyed by the State. Because he was a lot more than that – lovable and flawed, passionate and strong-willed, brilliant and infuriatingly stupid. It’ll be easy for folks to rally cry for revenge in his name. But not much is gained from reifying the us vs. them game that got us here. There has to be another way.

What I really hope comes out of this horrible tragedy is some serious community reflection and a deep values check. Many of the beliefs that Aaron stood for – the liberation of knowledge, open access to information, and the use of code to make the world better – are core values in the geek community. Yet, as Biella Coleman astutely dissects in “Coding Freedom”, this community is not without its flaws. Nor was Aaron. He did things his way because he believed that passion and will and action trumped all. And his stubbornness made him breakable. If we want to achieve the values and goals that are core to the geek community, I don’t think that we’ll ever make a difference by creating more martyrs that can be used as examples in a cultural war. As we collectively mourn Aaron’s death and channel our anger into making a difference, I think we need to look for an approach to change-making that doesn’t result in brilliant people being held up as examples so that they can be tormented by power.

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87 comments to processing the loss of Aaron Swartz

  • mary

    united we stand / divided we fall
    the gov’t does need some shaking up and a lot of accountability. our strength lays in our ability to come together, support each other, protect the constitution. i too am disappointed in the obama administration however i think he is powerless in his own right. i wouldn’t be surprised if his family would be in harms way…

  • htbeef

    While this is a tragedy, nothing will change. The problem runs much deeper then the fact that the vast majority of Americans not only don’t understand what our IP system is, and wouldn’t care even if you explained it to them. The core problem is that our “justice” system is flawed. This isn’t a big surprise as everyone knows that it is flawed, but the fact remains that it is still flawed. It doesn’t matter that it is (debateably) the best system we can come up with. It’s still based upon an simple concept of a trial, where the two separate side argue, and the winner of the argument defines the truth of the case (yes, it’s an oversimplification, but basically that’s the system). The problems that would need to be addressed are so fundamental, that it would require a tremendous amount of political will to correct. And, in a time when our government can’t even agree to pay the bills, and the majority of the people in America couldn’t care less, it’s not that difficult to see that nothing is going to change.

    The sad fact of the matter is that deep down, people WANT prosecutors to do what ever that have to in order to get convictions. They WANT to send criminals to jail. Remember, we live in a world where many criminals know the system and know how to get around it. The need for “justice” is strong, and people don’t like seeing the guilty get away it.

    The fundamental problem here is that it is very difficult to explain to people why Aaron wasn’t a criminal. Actually, the problem is the word criminal. That same word can be used to describe a murderer and someone who downloaded a file. Theoretically, our justice system accounts for different levels of crimes, but many people don’t want to know the details. They just want to know if the person was a criminal or not. Was he guilty or innocent? Yes, no. Good, bad. Black, white. Try to explain to someone that while Aaron broke the law, he wasn’t a criminal (while at the same time, the law he broke most people don’t understand anyway). Hell, try to explain to someone why stealing a song is not like stealing a cd. Even the prosecutor doesn’t understand the difference.

  • Hal Janker

    Just so you know, it’s “pwned” or “pwnt” not “p0wned”. You kind of look like an academic trying to be hip with the hackers when you use that word incorrectly, which is a shame because otherwise your points are good.

  • zephoria

    Actually, what I’m showing is my vintage. These subcultural terms have evolved over the years.

  • I am not a member of the “geek community” and don’t know you or your relationship with Aaron. I came across this post randomly, I’d say, by following links on this story.

    What caught my attention was this statement you made:

    “Many people asked why people didn’t speak up before. I can only explain my reasoning. I was too scared to speak publicly for fear of how my words might be used against him. And I was too scared to get embroiled in the witch hunt that I’ve watched happen over the last three years.”

    That comes off as self serving BS to me.

    Sounds like you were more interested in your own career and reputation than standing up for a friend.

    That seems to come with the territory of the scapegoats.

    Care to engage on that?

    Did anyone stand up and speak out?

  • MSpicuzza

    I sympathize with you for the loss of your friend. However, Swarz was a thief by any definition. His motives, however high-minded, do not excuse that. As one who has had my copyrighted material digitized, stolen, and given away over the Internet, and who has seen my income drop accordingly, I don’t see Swartz as a heroic figure. I see him as zealot who tramped on others in service of what he thought was a higher cause. Another thing: I have to ask why there is so much outrage when a privileged person is hounded by prosecutors and so little when a poor person is hounded. It seems to me that Swarz came from a very privileged class. He didn’t know what every poor person in America knows: if you break the law they will come after you hard and fast.

  • @digitalwraith1

    I just wanted to say thank you for writing that.

  • “What I really hope comes out of this horrible tragedy is some serious community reflection and a deep values check. Many of the beliefs that Aaron stood for – the liberation of knowledge, open access to information, and the use of code to make the world better – are core values in the geek community. Yet, as Biella Coleman astutely dissects in “Coding Freedom”, this community is not without its flaws. Nor was Aaron. He did things his way because he believed that passion and will and action trumped all. And his stubbornness made him breakable. If we want to achieve the values and goals that are core to the geek community, I don’t think that we’ll ever make a difference by creating more martyrs that can be used as examples in a cultural war. As we collectively mourn Aaron’s death and channel our anger into making a difference, I think we need to look for an approach to change-making that doesn’t result in brilliant people being held up as examples so that they can be tormented by power”.
    These words are great
    Very sad death of this genius.
    A warm hug!!

  • jay

    all these people with fancy degrees and titles are mourning aaron. but why wasn’t there a defense fund for him while he was still alive?

  • A new petition to “Investigate the possible abuse of power by US District Attorney Carmen Ortiz and others in the Aaron Swartz case”: http://wh.gov/EdbE

  • emily816

    @MSpicuzza,

    As an academic (who’s papers were were probably among those downloaded) let me tell you that you have no idea what you are talking about. Academic papers are based on scientific research that TAXPAYERS pay for. Taxpayers pay for the research, pay the publisher’s fees to publish the research, and Aaron felt that it was grossly unfair for them to have to pay the $35 per article (standard) to have to read them. Just to let you know, we (the authors) never see any money from papers – ever, whether they are downloaded zero times or a thousand, it all goes to the publishers that we pay huge fees to upfront. I have not spoken to a single academic who feels that Aaron “stole” something from them, most find it totally stupid that John Smith taxpayer who’s dollars we are spending doesn’t get to read work that he funded.

  • A week ago (seems like ages now) I wrote a short poem re “[code] warriors" vs "[code] activists". Sorry if it sounds like a plug, but I think it got more relevant: https://dubiousdod.org/peace

  • fool

    Sounds like you voted for these fascists without studying where this type of governance leads.

  • Christine Robinson

    All very good comments, and, yes, I too understand the anger and frustration over having lost a dear friend. But, as the one commenter said, “Sounds like you were more interested in your own career and reputation than standing up for a friend.” This is exactly what happened to Michael Jackson, another great loss.

  • ann

    This is beautifully written and very moving. Prosecutorial overreach is a cancer to our culture. Lawyers can threaten and bully and charge you with anything they want. They are one of the few remaining groups who we blindly allow to be self-policing because they pretend to be guided “by the law”. What a tragic loss to our society and to aaron’s friends and family.

  • I have been reading the many articles, posts, and all out rants about Aaron’s death. I loved what you have to say and how you said it. After reading a post where the poster thought you were being selfish by not standing up and fighting for Aaron earlier. I understand what you meant by ‘not saying anything for fear of hurting his case’. I was involved in a relatively small situation with a local government and 2 of us had to tell our staff and our colleagues to distance themselves from us – no emails, no phone calls, etc. to protect them and the program/projects. It worked. We are all dear friends to this day. The programs were saved. They worked under the radar while we took the heat. Speaking up, getting involved, – it can cause more harm than good when the other side has power and isn’t playing by the rules – or when the other side is simply making up the rules as they go. This was a tremendous loss and my heart goes out to those who loved Aaron. Thank you for writing this.

  • Ron Welch

    Thanks for writing a thoughtful, thought provoking and inspiring essay.

  • Jane Sabre

    My son was recently arrested for an internet crime and disproportionately charged and convicted. I learned that the police used technologies to do broad searches to tag and hunt ‘hash values’ of so-called ‘notable’ files. These broad searches over the internet looking for these tagged files are totally behind the scenes. No one knows that you’re being followed, or tagged, but you are, if you are downloading illegal stuff off the internet. The files my son accessed are globally shared in P2P networks. Then they pinpoint the IP address geographically. Then local law enforcement (special task forces) connects to the suspect’s computer using a one-to-one connection, apparently to obtain more evidence, but they do this without a warrant. This is how they built a case against my son and now he is serving time in a prison. My son never did anything illegal before this, he is a good person, and he certainly didn’t need to go to prison for four years as punishment for this internet crime. I also found that they’ve done this to over 600 other people in the last several years, and this is just in my state, with a population of less than four million. I live in a blue state.

    It was a nightmare. No objections were granted to our attorney. One objection was to quell evidence based on its relevance (remember it’s an internet crime), and the judge decided to overrule and allow the evidence to be shown to the jury. He compared the images to a murder trial where they allow the gruesome crime scene images to be seen by the jury. Again, keep in mind, my son did nothing to anyone; he looked at images he found on the internet: images distributed globally through P2P networks.

    It’s true that I am angry, very angry. My son’s life is ruined because of a stupid mistake. It didn’t just affect him though, it affected his brother, sister, father and mother. It is like the cure is worse than the disease kind of scenario. And if my son had actually done something to someone, this would be a different story. I’d kill him myself. He didn’t deserve to go to prison or be labeled a felon the rest of his life. Neither did, it seems, most of the others who’ve been convicted of similar statutes.

    So I agree that there is a problem of power, a lack of balance of justice. The scales are skewed for political purposes, to empower the Department of Justice, District Attorneys, Judges, and anyone else connected to these organizations.

  • VLT

    HIT BUTTON TOO SOON – TRY THE EDITED VERSION

    Your loss, though palpable, might be a bit of guilt and blame in relying upon a 26-year old Wunderkind with emotional problems to fight your community’s battles. Do we revere intelligence so much that we let it harm the owner? This is why our generation has proven to be such terrible parents. Someone could have sat that boy down and said,” If you do it, I’m through with you. Don’t do it.” Or talk to his parents. You all could have protected him from his own folly. Instead you cheered his genius. And he’s dead now. How much of society has been hurt by not having him around to provide even better ideas for the future? It’s everybody’s loss.

    At 26 years of age, an adult’s mind is still nascent. Aaron was more courageous than all of you, but in your community’s bask in the young man’s glorious halo, you helped him run afoul of federal laws. The comment by the academic about the irony of having to pay $35 per article for research paid for by the taxpayer would have been a real easy point to rally around. I would have signed a petition! Maybe you can do something to honor Mr. Swartz and fight his battles en masse.

    Prosecutors do scapegoat. Why? For its deterrent effect, one of the goals of criminal punishment.

    « Older Comments 1 2

  • Jane Sabre

    Actually, maybe you shouldn’t post my comment. It’s a rant more or less. You seem naive to me. You have no idea what it would be like to face time in prison, and for what? For sharing information? Or for inadvertently obtaining files that are flagged as illegal? Or for anything that is considered purely an internet crime. I guess in Aaron’s case, it was considered theft as well, but essentially he was stealing information, and then he was bullied, and really that case should never have come this far. I know from personal experience that this kind of prosecutorial motivation is commonplace within that system. You have no idea how bad or pervasive it is…

  • Jane Sabre

    I hate that this happened to Aaron and his family. I feel like his father feels, that his son was killed by the government. Even a non-depressed person would consider suicide if facing 30 years in prison.

  • Not a millionaire

    Wasn’t Aaron extremely wealthy, from a 1%er background? He would have been out in a few years. While I think his cause was noble (the JSTOR papers should be free since it’s taxpayer funded) why do I get the feeling that everyone on this blog including Swarz and Danah were total Obama supporters.

    I voted for the other guy, Romney. This is the problem, all of you have blinders on with what Obama and the State Dept are doing. Today it’s guns, next it’s videogames. Obama is totally rotten to the core, so whyyyyy does nation look at him and follow him like dogs in heat?

    Read the book On Bended Knee. It’s about the Reagan admin & the press but just change it to Obama. There is NO CRITICISM from the left, from the media, from the D’s.

    I’m voting R till they get back into power then I’ll probably switch back to D. My goodness, please, open your bloody eyes people to WTH this admin is doing.

  • Don in Baltimore

    A telling comparison could be drawn with the decision not to prosecute NBC’s David Gregory for violated DC arms laws by having an illegal magazine on-air during Meet the Press. When a member of the media elite breaks the law to support the goals of the elite; that’s OK.

  • Bev Freeman

    dana, I am concerned about the hate churning on Twitter (e.g., in response to husband of prosecutor in Mass. posting her defense inappropriately to be sure). It feels the same as outrage on both sides to Newtown and gun violence prevention. I dislike when Twitter is used to communicate free flowing hate. Your voice is encouraging moderation and soul searching, thank you. As a mother, I can empathize with the family and excuse any “ill considered” commentary that may have come from them or their lawyers. The pain of a loss of a child cannot be underestimated as in Newtown, etc. An unfortunate confluence of tragic events that challenge us all.

  • mc

    MSpicuzza, you say you had copyright material digitized/stolen/ and given away over the net. But was your material of a scientific nature?

    It seems to me that Aaron was more concerned with the bottling up of scientific papers behind pay walls. When it comes to information like he was talking about, sharing becomes a moral imperative as it gives progress to human technology and understanding. To get a clear picture I’d recommend you read Aaron Swartz Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. Here’s the first paragraph and a link.

    Aaron Swartz’s Guerilla Open Access Manifesto
    Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

    found here:

    http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/aaron-swartzs-guerilla-open-access-manifesto/2013/01/15

    Oh, and thanks for writing about aaron.

  • tz

    My only comment is “too little, too late”. Blacks were killed from reconstruction until the civil rights movement, until one too many caused outrage.

    Anyone else remember the scientist the FBI went after in a similar way accused of sending the anthrax envelopes (trying to get his family to turn on him) who committed suicide?

    Anyone remember the stories of businessmen – doctors, manufacturers, and the rest the FBI has ruined? Like http://www.unbridledgrace.com/media.php ?

    Where were you for Bradly Manning? Or someone on the right? Or other whistleblowers?

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the one that said “When they came for the jews/gypsies/communists/etc. I didn’t speak up because I was not one of them”. “When they came for me there was no one left to speak up”.

    How many of you voted for Obama? How many tried to get Ron Paul to be the Republican nominee so there would be an alternative?

    Aaron Swartz is dead. Was it worth it? Do you still think it is worth it?

    Are you outraged because Leviathan has killed and eaten one of your own this time instead of someone you didn’t like? Or are you like me who has been outraged for 30 YEARS over each case where the Federal Government has found people who were unpopular and whom the majority were intolerant of and crushed them, shredded the constitution and even rights going back to the Magna Charta. On both the left and right. If you want a big government to be a nanny against things you don’t like – instead of persuading or tolerating – one day it WILL come for you. You will be it’s latest Aaron Swartz. Whether you are on the right or the left.

    You are either for putting the evil genie back into the bottle and putting the seal called the Constitution upon it where it can only do little, and only at a federal level, even though that might make it much harder to do the good you seek since evil means are often more efficient, or you are for letting it loose so as to do the goods you want but don’t really care when it goes on to destroy whom the current whims decide ought to be destroyed. Gays, the NRA, Conservative religious people, Labor, business men, Hackers, Makers, pro or anti-abortion activists, anti-war protestors, organic farmers, remixers, … Whatever random group is not tolerated at the moment.

    You want to have a huge bonfire – expect people like Aaron and eventually yourself to be burned.

  • “depression”. When is it that we will understand that sometimes there exist rational reasons to be depressed?

    Aaron Swartz would never have been that active if he had not been acutely conscious of some serious problem in society, not just abstract problem, problem he suffered from too.

    Acknowledging the problems he raises while at the same time rejecting them under the notion of the “depression” of a supposedly fragile person is not fair.

    Aaron Swartz was depressed by the very situation he was fighting against. The cause of his depression are the reasons of his fight.

    Society killed Arron Swartz, he never killed himself, let’s not blame the victim.

  • pwned originally came from an inadvertent typo of owned, just as newsfroup came from newsgroup. I dislike ad hominem arguments, but my vintage online does exceed yours and Hal’s by a number of years; I can remember its early use.

  • That should make us all the more concentrated on helping Bradly Manning and Assange. Aaron’s death shows us the hell they have to go through – it amazes me now all the more how strong they are. But it should also teach us that they can’t go through it alone.
    Both of them are used in the same mafia-style way to state an example: if you challenge power, you’ll never be free again. We have to somehow make sure that the message is proven wrong.

  • Travis

    I am tired of this line “he was depressed BUT it was the Government that did him in.”
    Im gonna tell it like it is…

    This kid was a brainiac Hipster geek douchebag with lofty ideals and a piss poor grounding in the world around him. Real, well adjusted humans take their lumps and struggle on. Wounded humans with runaway mental health issues often do not.

    People are up in arms that the state was making an example out of him. This is no big news. It happens, a lot. This is why their is a range of sentence lengths/severities… so the potential can exist to bury a real threat. Yes Aaron may be seen as a glowing white palladin to you, but he was only a hair away from a terrorist to legal authorities. So he works with legal documents and robin hooding info like that. Cool. But what happens when his ire is turned on… a company or an individual. Uh oh. That’s the thinking of the govt. We let this go soft and it well set an uneasy precedent.

    If you play with fire…. sorry Swartz fans…. you get burned. Be angry at the wounded, sick man who couldn’t handle the food he put on his plate and not the simple minded government minions who were acting in a ho-hum business-as-usual manner. This tragedy will not change a damn thing. If Swartz gave a fuck about changing anything he wouldve struggled on and worked for it.

    So stop fucking celebrating this man who could’ve been great but relegated himself to a historical anecdote by failing to properly treat his depression and then playing hero without the fortitude to stick it out.

  • Dummy

    These threads are a drag, but thanks Travis for pointing out where my sinking feeling is…
    You were good ’til you blame aaron for “failing to treat…properly…” That sounds like telling a drowning person to just swim.

    @Jane Sabre, wish you’d left more bread crumbs.

    @Danah, irregardless (yaheyeknoe, ‘tspurposeful) of your advanced years, the l33t was just jarring and a context relevance fail. You’re writing your feelings, instead of screaming, point taken. What young Swartz was pwned by was a matrix of abherrant brain chemistry, ideas in hishead, and a culture that purposefully leaves people “alone.” Can you think of other young men in the news this has “happened” to? do you know what compounds these young men, and the rest of us now swim through, for only a few recent generations in the longshort history of organic evolution?
    The Agents can’t pwn jack. St. Nicholas is working wet.

  • Dummy

    …forgot to ask, though i know it’s about “this not screaming,”. What’s the “better” in the for better or worse? Can we own that?

  • Nabil

    danah, just wanted to leave condolences. my thoughts are with you and the other survivors.

  • Until now, I can still feel goosebumps whenever I read articles and blog posts about Aaron Swartz and how his death affected the whole community. I may only have known of him for a short time but I know just about enough to reach a conclusion that he was someone who shouldn’t have had to resort to what he did. How I wish life didn’t deal him such a tragic end.

  • I’ve read and reviewed pretty much all the news reports, commentaries, analyses, profiles, tributes, and lamentations that have been published online since Aaron Swartz hanged himself on January 11th.

    A lot of people — including those close to Aaron who knew him well — were variously shocked, surprised, angered, grieved, and perplexed by his decision to take his own life.

    By his own admission, Aaron Swartz was on a “crazy roller coaster” in the wake of his indictment by the US Attorney.

    One of the features of being on a “crazy roller coaster” is that one’s emotions rapidly oscillate between both familiar and unfamiliar extremes.

    At times, one has high hopes. The next moment, one has high anxiety that plunges into despair.

    Aaron was known for his mood swings. He could be enthused one day and lethargic the next.

    His life story reads like his own idiosyncratic version of a passion play. He could be passionate about a cause and then undertake a systematic campaign that calls for sustained effort and dispassionate problem-solving.

    If I had to guess what Aaron Swartz was thinking and feeling the day he took his life, my best guess is that he was feeling scapegoated, and perhaps thinking that he was hopelessly ensnared in a long-term, nightmare, no-win, dispiriting drama with the US Attorney.

    When one is ensnared in a lunatic scapegoat drama, there is likely to be a crucial phase where the protagonist feels forsaken. That’s the phase that is most likely to immediately precede a dramatic moment of death.

    Justice is supposed to be a dispassionate process. But in Aaron’s case it clearly was not. The prosecution has been characterized as over-zealous and vindictive. To an idealistic person on the receiving end of such relentless persecution, the whole system comes off as being arbitrary, capricious, and beyond redemption.

    There are reports that Carmen Ortiz has been shaken by the turn of events associated with Aaron’s suicide and its aftermath. Perhaps now she is also feeling scapegoated, too. That’s the odd thing about passion plays. The extreme emotions of the protagonist become unexpectedly transferred to the antagonist.

    In the end, all that’s left to feel is remorse.

  • MFoster

    When Aaron makes a point with questionable tactics, its a crime with 30 years of punishment. When the District Attorney and MIT makes a point with questionable tactics, its a judgement error.

  • I appreciate finding this post. We need leaders, folks that not only teach and write about it. Kids that not only blog and walk across New Hampshire. Folks that not only vote but folks that run for office. Folks that can run, collect a base. Kids that are brave enough to raise money, run and win. Kids that will join the administration of these leaders and develop policy. It starts at the top as well as the bottom. You kids need to run, get your friends to run and than be with them to raise the money and raise the people to win. It can be done.

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