An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.
It’s been 10 days since Aaron Swartz killed himself, facing down the barrel of a gun pointed by within-their-rights-but-a-tad-too-zealous federal prosecutors. Plead to 13 felonies and we’ll recommend “only” 6 months in jail, he was told. His apparent crime was of such magnitude and caused such harm that civil disobedience was not seen for and treated as it was.
Swartz was many things that are better left to others (and I’m sure you’ve read them all by now), but the growing sentiment is that he was also a victim. Despite being a defendant, he was the victim of a criminal justice system that was too harsh. On him. He’s being hailed as a hero; a martyr; the future of disobedience and because of that, an example to be made.He’s the catalyst for change: for alterations to the federal statute and for closer scrutiny of the DOJ (albeit the latter is probably more political than anything). And undeniably, the din of criticism of prosecutorial discretion in this case is loud (make sure you read this lengthy piece by Radley Balko on the power of the prosecutor and this one by Glenn Greenwald: there aren’t two people who’re doing more good work on the ever-growing unchecked power of the state).
To all of you who’ve been engrossed by the above; shocked by it, angered, even, I say: welcome to the real world. Welcome to the world that’s existed around you for decades, but that you’ve been too blind to see.
Because Aaron Swartz wasn’t special. Not in that sense. He was just like every other criminal defendant that walks through the doors of every courthouse in America: a conviction waiting to happen. He was an opportunity for someone to flex their muscle over; for someone to teach a lesson to; for a system to fail to live up to its promise. Aaron Swartz is no different that the guy who sat in jail for 5 years waiting for a trial, or the guy who was arrested 20 years after the crime and the Supreme Court changed substantive law just to ensure that he was prosecuted, or the guy in whose case the judge texted the prosecutor questions to ask, or the man who refuses to give up his First Amendment rights and keeps getting arrested or the inmate who loses his appeal because his lawyer didn’t file the right paperwork and the courts don’t care, or Ronald Cotton or Cameron Todd Willingham, or maybe tomorrow: you. In the eyes of the law, there was no difference between any of them: their crimes may have been disparate; their rights all the same to eviscerate.
This happens every day: we have less rights today than we did 10, 15, 20 years ago. And they keep getting curtailed. Because you don’t care. Don’t look at me; I care. I scream about it on this blog every chance I get. But you don’t listen. Because it doesn’t happen to you. It doesn’t happen to people you know. It doesn’t happen to people you like. Because they aren’t you.
First they came for the terrorists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a terrorist. Then they came for the criminals, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a criminal. Then they came for the people they didn’t like, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t one of them… well, shit, there’s no one left but you and me.
There are only two kinds of people: those that they’ve come for and those that they’re coming for. And now what? Now that they came for your savant, your gentleman hacker; your prodigy and he took his life; what’s next? Why do you think they won’t come for you? What makes you that much better able to fend off their might? [Update: And when Carmen Ortiz says she won’t do business any differently, do you think she’s joking? Do you want to be the next defendant she’s prosecuting?
And while it speaks volumes about her ego, her position is the clearest indication that it wasn’t Aaron Swartz’s case that was singled out for preferential treatment. This is how they do business. In every case. And if you think that there was injustice in Swartz’s case, then doesn’t it stand to reason that there’s injustice in the murderer’s case or the rapist’s case or the bank robber’s case?]
If you’ve started caring now, will you stop? Or have you finally realized that “they” have always been “us”? That we’re one overzealous officer or one slightly difficult prosecutor away from being Aaron Swartz. Aaron Swartz became one of “them”. Which one are you?
The quote that starts this post is by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.