Sickness, Harassment and Suicide

Few stories in the news recently have disturbed me as much as that of the young Internet pioneer and activist, Aaron Swartz, who hanged himself in his apartment two days ago. Aaron was the type of geek and free thinker who you’d just know would be a multimillionaire, and indeed he became rich from the sale of the business he co-founded, Reddit. The money made no difference; Aaron was a tortured soul, even before a US prosecutor disgracefully got Aaron in his sites and all but decided to ruin his life, forever. The story frightens me, it sickens me, it reminds me of how Kafkaesque the US legal system can be and of how corporate interests get away with murder (almost literally) while the little guy, especially the kind like Aaron who challenge the system, can be pulverized. No, I can’t stop thinking about it.

The media have been saturated with this story; if you have no background you can read this or this. The government helped to hound Aaron to death. I can’t say their harassment actually killed him, but it was surely a very major factor behind his decision to take his life.

Aaron had a long history of depression, so perhaps the harassment was just a co-factor. He wrote a heartbreaking blog post about his illness nearly six years ago. His pain — depression, migraines, severe stomach illness — colonized his body and often made his life miserable.

Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad. Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you or a plan has gone horribly awry. Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.

At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But sometimes that is worse. You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms.

He was clearly not well, and his friends in various articles posted yesterday noted how he could turn on them, almost violently. But they all loved him, and saw him as a noble person determined to do what he thought was right.

But then something happened that put him over the top and magnified his depression exponentially. It is a complicated story, but this is it in a nutshell:

He was facing multiple felony charges; if convicted he could have gone to jail for thirty-five years, and owed over a million dollars in fines. His “crime” was that he downloaded too many articles from JSTOR, an online service providing access to academic articles. He downloaded more articles than JSTOR’s terms of service allowed, therefore he was in violation of their terms of service, therefore (according to the prosecution’s interpretation) he violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. JSTOR themselves were not interested in pressing charges — this was federal prosecutors deciding to make an example. Now they have unintentionally succeeded, tragically and in a way that I hope, for the sake of their own souls, they never anticipated. Stubbornly, and characteristically, Aaron was unwilling to take a plea deal and be labeled a “felon” when he had done nothing wrong; he insisted on pleading not guilty.

It may be a little more complicated. He downloaded millions of documents because he felt academic articles that JSTOR stored should be available for free to the public. Their authors made no money from the fees JSTOR charged readers, only JSTOR did. It was a quixotic, foolish thing to do. It was not well thought through. But it absolutely did not justify the prosecutor throwing at him multiple felony charges that would have landed him in jail for as much as 50 years, with fines above $1 million, let alone his legal fees.

Something is so wrong about this. JSTOR, the defendant, wanted to drop the whole case. But the prosecutor was adamant and found multiple counts with which to charge Aaron for a wholly victimless “crime.” Just a few weeks ago, HSBC was forced to pay a $1.9 billion fine for laundering money from murderous Mexican drug cartels. They did this knowingly, breaking the law and greedily accepting the blood money. The fine was the equivalent to “about five weeks of income for the bank.” Think about that. Those who are powerful and politically connected get away almost literally with murder, breaking serious laws and committing serious crimes. (I strongly recommend you read the article to see just how depraved our justice system is.) Here, a kid (and at my age anyone under 30 is a kid) did something foolish but hurt absolutely no one. He had to live for nearly two years under the specter of knowing he could go to jail for decades. And be bankrupted. While those who commit heinous crimes are given what amounts to even less than a slap on the wrist. I believe it is safe to say he was bullied to death, and I wonder how the prosecutor is feeling as he goes to bed each night.

Aaron will probably be forgotten by most in a few days, overshadowed by other stories. But I wanted to memorialize him on my blog because his story encompasses so much of what I hate and fear: people in government abusing their power, the hopelessness and helplessness of those who fall into our legal web, and the needless death of a young and brilliant life by his own hand.

With this post I just want to keep his memory alive a little longer. I realize it’s not China-related and won’t draw comments, but I can’t just be silent about a story that’s consumed me for the past two days. This is an outrage, a tragedy, and a crime.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 25 Comments

This might not be China related, but it is a tragic event that happened. Aaron is a hero who stood up to the bullying alone.

January 14, 2013 @ 8:38 am | Comment

This is a tragic day for all of us. Aaron really was one of those people that was both altruistic enough to embark on a sincere attempt to improve the world, while being intelligent enough to make the right choices in doing so. It’s a real pity that US justice system ended up fucking him over like this.

You might want to look at these two petitions to remove the US Attorneys responsible for making Aaron’s life a living hell.

https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/fire-assistant-us-attorney-steve-heymann/RJKSY2nb

https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/remove-united-states-district-attorney-carmen-ortiz-office-overreach-case-aaron-swartz/RQNrG1Ck

January 14, 2013 @ 9:28 am | Comment

The biggest crime here has definitely been committed by JSTOR. They have a few of my articles on the site, and I never get paid for them. Then when I want to access someone else’s research, I have to cough up. It’s absurd.

January 14, 2013 @ 10:04 am | Comment

Thanks for posting this Richard. China related or not, it’s definitely worth the attention. And you’re absolutely right, it’s sickening.

January 14, 2013 @ 10:12 am | Comment

Thanks for writing about this Richard. I think it is China-related but in the very interesting sense that it shows how like China the United States can be. I think Carmen M. Ortiz should be made legally accountable for this tragedy. Contrary to what many Americans might think, I don’t see that we have that many free spirits as valuable as this young man that we can afford as a nation to do this to them. We’ve shot ourselves in the foot over some silly technicality, completely ignoring the larger issues at play. The rule of law is one thing. Going by the book to the extent you ignore the spirit of justice — that’s another entirely.

January 14, 2013 @ 10:15 am | Comment

This story has nothing to do with China. And anyone attempting to tie it to China is way off base. US Justice system has problems that is unique to itself.

January 14, 2013 @ 12:06 pm | Comment

@Will

Each system has unique problems, but the underlying cause of this tragedy can be found wherever there are people.
I think William is off the mark for singling out China as the archetype of abuses of power.

January 14, 2013 @ 1:15 pm | Comment

My opinion is that empires have a tendency to act like empires, regardless of what country we’re talking about. There are better systems and worse systems, and positives and negatives, but authority that is not sufficiently restrained generally becomes arbitrary and cruel, particularly when it is fueled by the power of money. The HSBC example illustrates this well.

January 14, 2013 @ 1:53 pm | Comment

Prils Hilton comes to mind, but no one wept for her.

January 14, 2013 @ 8:02 pm | Comment

Paris.

January 14, 2013 @ 8:03 pm | Comment

It’s a shame that the scales of justice in America are controlled by who piles the most amount of money on each end in too many cases. RIP.

January 14, 2013 @ 8:10 pm | Comment

It’s sad to see the life of a genius cut short, and for such trivial reasons.

January 14, 2013 @ 11:53 pm | Comment

on a second thought, I support the free flow and easy access of information, JSTOR may not have created the contents itself, it provides access to them and the servers and things needed to be maintained, there is cost in providing the service, the problem then is, whether or not the company charges too much? and how to strike a balance between the need of those who provide access to information to make some profit and the wishes of some that information be made more easily accessible and–ultimately–freely available?

January 15, 2013 @ 12:23 am | Comment

kriz, as I said, this was a stupid thing to do, and he made a serious mistake, hacking JSTOR’s servers. But it should never have led to multiple felony counts.

William was, I think, simply making a comparison between China’s Kafkaesque (over-used word, sorry) legal system and our own. He’s not saying this is a story about China.

January 15, 2013 @ 12:39 am | Comment

One of the very best articles I’ve read on this tragedy: http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/01/aaron-swartzs-politics.html

Spoke with a friend of mine who is very familiar with MIT. She pointed out the many sides to this story, which I understand: breaking and entering, hacking, “theft” (though he never distributed the data or profited from it). As I said in the post, it was stupid and ill considered. But as this article points out, the response was not just; the prosecutors were out to destroy Aaron not for what he did but who he was, a crusader who stood up to the machine of power. Read it.

January 15, 2013 @ 9:21 am | Comment

At least he’ll be happy to know he suffered a democratic depression and died a democratic suicide.

Death to the CCP!

January 15, 2013 @ 10:45 am | Comment

A lot of 50 centers try to use this to attack the democratic system of America. In America, there’s something called copy right protection, which the CCP-ruled China doesn’t have.

He died a happy man knowing he lived in a law-based society.

January 15, 2013 @ 10:50 am | Comment

Mr. Swartz – like many others – would have needed critical solidarity. There is no need to believe in them, but there is a need to see their rights, and to see the infringements on their rights. There are many of Mr. Swartz’ kind, and they go completely unnoticed. When I wrote about Deutsche Welle‘s Chinese service, and published this interview, I kept in mind that while the judicial system doesn’t always amount to justice, the main problem – probably – is general apathy.

I see a parallel between this case, and China – and I think I can afford to point this out without being considered a CCP apologist. Obvious abuse of state power (if in a legal sense, remains to be seen, but clearly abuse in an ethical sense) leads to flaring tempers both in America and in China. It is a universal experience – most people can relate to it in one way or another. But these moments are rare.

One news agency in Germany – an agency with an official church background – published a long report, with a lot of verification in favor of the four journalists that had been sacked. Not one single paper or broadcaster in Germany cared to air it. Noone cared to demand coverage, either. The report was apparently available to all the German press, in a common database. So there is no reason to believe that they were unaware of the story. Unfortunately, the story didn’t go online. It was sent to me as a pdf file.

Their problem, as I interpret it: their industrial-relations and journalist issues ware a sensitive issue all over the commercial (and publicly-owned) media. Hence no interest in covering it.

As long as the big papers don’t cover a story, it won’t have happened. The traditional media are still the gate-keepers for politically relevant information. That’s where questions about your trade (not you personally, to be clear) need to be asked, Richard.

There are a few “beacons” in public awareness, like Julian Assange or Bradley Manning. Their merits and mistakes, in my view, would need to be debated extensively, rather than simply be praised or condemned. They seem to serve as some post-modern kinds of Jesuses-on-the-cross. People pay their respects to them as they do to Brian, as he hangs on the cross in that great Monty-Python movie, and then go back to their routines.

That kills every issue. When “Jesus” is in charge, you don’t need to do anything. When Assange and Manning are saints, you can’t live up to their example anyway. Only a society that is prepared to look into the shades of grey, to judge, and to decide what to do, can become a more fair society.

It is right to mourn Mr. Swartz. But the main question is: how to handle the issue? It’s a question to society. To get either careerist or politicized prosecutors fired – guys who were not obliged to prosecute, but did it anyway -, would be a beginning. It wouldn’t only be an achievement for those who make it into the headlines, but also for the many who go unnoticed, in their neighborhoods, and nationwide. Power needs to learn to respect the “common people”.

That’s why I maintain that the main difference between China and most Western country isn’t about human rights. It is about totalitarianism. Our press isn’t controlled centrally, but business principles control it anyway. We can speak out, provided that what we say is backed by evidence, but too many people who matter won’t speak out. That’s when things start going into the wrong direction, even in democratic countries. Democracy is nothing static. It can rot, if it isn’t defended against enemies from within (who frequently like to present themselves as democracy’s greatest champions).

Here is another problem: networking. It’s another field where Western countries are becoming more similar to China. The law is becoming unpredictable here, given the technicalities. You can twist every paragraph – or any well-paid lawyer can – until it fits the interests of the powerful.

When torture becomes something you can advocate in a European paper without becoming a pariah in your own established network, things are going wrong.

If our fundamental rights matter as much to us as our economic prospects do, it’s time to go from mourning to action, however small. Just as meditation is a skill one needs to learn, awareness for the small, but important things one can do in the real world, can be learned, too.

January 17, 2013 @ 10:16 pm | Comment

In my opinion, Mr Swartz’s suicide was much more related to his deep problem with depression, rather than his legal problems. Depression that leads to suicide is an extreme mental state. To blame Mr. Swartz’s suicide on his legal problems does not really seem appropriate. Proper studies in science do not recognize a causal link between associated events.

I doubt that a troubled soul like Mr. Swartz even knew why he killed himself. Suicide is such an extreme act, we are as helpless as the victim of suicide to understand why it happens.

Further, if we accept the reality of the soul, then we have no basis to judge at all, since the realities of the soul and spirit are beyond our comprehension.

yamabuki

January 19, 2013 @ 12:29 pm | Comment

I think it’s a combination, as do his friends who knew him well. He committed suicide only days after being told the only agreement the prosecutor would offer would be six months in jail and having to live as a convicted felon for the rest of his life. For a good perspective see this excellent analysis by the famous academic Lawrence Lessig.

January 20, 2013 @ 1:15 am | Comment

Kind of ambivalent on this myself. JSTOR does have the right to protect its property, but much of that property was actually created by others and stored by JSTOR. This is entirely legal. Aaron chose a method he had to have known was illegal to accomplish something he believed in. Breaking the law has consequences. When you step over that line, you need to understand what can happen and be prepared to deal with it. From what I have read, Aaron was an idealist and may have believed that other – more powerful – people would see the rightness of his beliefs and rise to his defense. My own personal opinion is that his suicide was more from a sense of abandonment.

January 26, 2013 @ 2:02 pm | Comment

Agree with everything you say, but the way they threw the book at him, threatening him with charges that could land him in prison for 35 years if he didn’t cop a plea that would have branded him a felon for life and sent him away for six months — that was way too severe for a first-time offender in what was basically a victimless crime. Yes, JSTOR was technically a ‘victim” but they said they did not want to press charges at all! Having used JSTOR for my own research, by the way, I can attest to the fact that they charge way, way too much, especially since the authors of the works get nothing. That doesn’t justify stealing, but I think that’s part of what Aaron wanted to say, that the information should be free. He was physically and mentally unwell, and I think you may be right about abandonment. But looking at the timing, I don’t think he would have killed himself if the prosecutors had taken a more humane approach. I don’t know what I’d do if I were told I had to go to prison for six months and live the rest of my life as a felon.

January 27, 2013 @ 9:52 am | Comment

A law prof and US Supreme Court blogger at the Volokh.com site has been writing blistering criticisms of the prosecutors on this case. The general consensus is that this is a case of prosecutorial misconduct. MIT, where the articles Aaron published came from, also said at the very beginning that they did not wish to pursue any charges. I cannot see any reasonable purpose that was served by the actions of the US Attorney. Even as a case of trying to make Aaron an example to other hackers, it was way over what would be reasonable. My own personal suspicion is that the authorities may have believed Aaron was connected or knew other – more serious – hackers and wanted names and numbers. These are the tactics used by cops and prosecutors against organized crime and drug gangs to get a suspect to turn state’s evidence.

Various agencies have been targeting the Annonymouse group and they may have felt Aaron could give them an opening to identify and locate members of this group.

January 27, 2013 @ 12:34 pm | Comment

Looks like their plan may have backfired.

Good article out today about this heartbreaking story: http://www.thenation.com/article/172380/government-persecution-aaron-swartz-bradley-manning

January 27, 2013 @ 12:43 pm | Comment

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The more power we give to government, the more this sort of thing will happen.

January 31, 2013 @ 11:55 am | Comment

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