In July, 2011, I wrote about the Aaron Swartz case. It was with sadness that I read that Aaron Swartz had committed suicide.
From all I have read, Swartz was a sweet guy. He was only twenty-six, having done more in that short life than most of us do with the entirety of ours. It staggers me that he was young enough to be my son.
Depression is a tricky thing, and at the end of the day the only person responsible for a suicide is the person who takes their own life. To say or believe otherwise is to act as though they lack free will, that indeed they had no other option. In truth, there is always another option.
That said, severe stress can make people much more susceptible to depression and suicidality. By all accounts, his life was made hell by zealous prosecution of a theft from an company, JSTOR, that itself declined to press charges, or pursue a civil case. A lot of questions have been raised about the actions of the prosecutor, to the point that a petition have him fired has been posted on the White House's "We the People" site which has received almost 17,000 votes.
I said in 2011 that what Swartz was indicted for was theft. Having read a lot more about the case in the past few days, I may have been wrong.* I am still mulling it over. I definitely think that the laws under which Swartz was charged need to be overhauled: a potential sentence of 35 years? Really?
We have a country in which torturers get off scot-free. Financial barons who drove the country's economy into the ground with their reckless behavior end up with bonuses. Yet a kid who commits what is in essence a victimless crime for an act which would be much better handled with civil litigation is charged and threatened with over three decades in prison.
There is something very wrong with this picture.**
*For me, there is an object lesson on making sure you understand all the facts and the context in which they exist before making grand pronouncements on things. The entire world is contextual, and I forget this at my peril.
**There have been suggestions that the charges were driven as much by Swartz's political activity as anything else, which would make the entire affair even more outrageous. The prosecution may have also engaged in fishing expeditions with subpoenas aimed at Amazon.