By Brandon Ferdig
The more I read about Aaron Swartz, the more he seemed like a hero from an Ayn Rand novel. He had that kind of intelligence, moral IQ and frustration with the rest of the population. Unfortunately, there was no hint of fiction in his flaws.
Swartz was too idealistic to work within the confines of the system. But instead of trudging on against the wrongs of our government, he let the fear of it dictate his present and erase his future.
It's hard to work within the system when the nation's collective aptitude and principles are so disparate from your own. I'm guessing Swartz felt very lonely, and at the end, hopeless and defeated, while staring at felony charges and many, many years in prison.
One needn't be a genius to see how his story highlights the gap between America today and what America ought to be. Most telling: Our society is increasingly less tolerant of those who bully. And given the recent history of bullying-related tragedies, Americans have charged their legal system to stand up and prosecute bullies. How counter-intuitive, counter-productive and just plain sad, then, that the U.S. justice system is itself doing the bullying.
The crime Aaron was charged with was logging into the MIT servers and copying large amounts of information from its academic research journals. The material wasn't classified, was publicly funded, and free to see — though limited in the amount one could access. Regardless, the United States intended to prosecute him to the fullest extent.
Is Aaron Swartz America's Mohamed Bouazizi? He was the Tunisian street vendor who, after being harassed for years by the government, set himself on fire to protest the corruption and abuse of the state.
The reaction to his death was enormous. Tunisian citizens rose in protest all over the country, to the point of ousting the president and ending his 23-year rule. Then, things spread all over the Arab world, toppling leaderships in Egypt, Libya and Yemen as well as inspiring revolt in several other Arab nations.
A first look at these two men reveals more contrasts than similarities. Bouazizi was poor. Swartz was a boy genius who accomplished great things: at 14, he worked on the team that developed RSS 1.0, an early system for dispersing content online. Before he was 20, he started the Internet company Infogami, which later merged with the now-popular site, Reddit.
Yet both men committed suicide, and in doing so, shone a spotlight on the problems in their respective worlds.
Bouazizi's suicide made his fellow countrymen pay attention to corruption in Tunisia. Through Swartz, we are made to pay attention to issues of intellectual property and our overall ideas of justice.
Prosecutors are rewarded not for protecting society from those who are harmful, but for punishing as many people who break laws as possible — whether they are a threat to us or not. The cost is extraordinary, and now America, the land of the free, has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
And while going after low-power individuals like Aaron Swartz for allegedly stealing journals, the U.S. government rewards those who lost swaths of wealth through irresponsible banking by giving them taxpayer-funded bailouts.
We'll see whether more parallels between Mohamed Bouazizi and Aaron Swartz can be made. Bouazizi's death was like the 212th degree in the pot of hot water, starting the boil. People suddenly had no patience for the abuses they had suffered.
Aaron's death similarly represents much of what is wrong with the United States. I hope change occurs as a result of his death, too.