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A Time For Silence (Mourning the Death of Aaron Swartz)

Posted: Tue, January 29, 2013 | By: Lawrence Lessig



A week ago today, Aaron gave up. And since I received the call late Friday night telling me that, like so many others who were close to him, I have not rested. Not slept, really. Not connected with my kids, at all. Not held my wife except to comfort her tears, or for her to comfort mine.

Instead of rest, I have been frantically trying to explain, to connect, and to make sense of all of this. Endless emails responding to incredible kindness, phone call after phone call with reporters and friends, and the only solace I know: writing.

(this essay was re-posted with the author’s permission, from his blog entry HERE)

But none of that has made this better. Indeed, with every exchange, it only gets worse. I understand it less. I am angry more. I think of yet another, “If only I had …”

I need to step back from this for now. I am grateful for your kind emails. I am sorry if I can’t answer them. To the scores of people who write to tell me they were wronged by US Attorney Ortiz, I am sorry, that is not my fight. To the press — especially the press wanting “just five minutes” — I apologize. This isn’t a “just five minutes” story, at least from me.

There have been a handful of smiles this past week. My three year old, Tess, putting her arms around my neck, holding me as tight as she possibly could, promising me “the doctors will put him back together, papa, they will.” A screenwriter friend, grabbing me after a talk in New York, and pulling me into an argument about his next great film. And best of all, the astonishingly beautiful letter from MIT’s president, acknowledging — amazingly — at least the possibility of responsibility, and appointing the very best soul on that side of Cambridge to review and guide that great if flawed institution’s review.

But these smiles have been drowned by endless sadness, and even greater disappointment — and none more pronounced than the utterly profound disappointment in our government, Carmen Ortiz in particular.

I hate my perpetual optimism about our government. Aaron was buried on the tenth anniversary of the time that optimism bit me hardest — Eldred v. Ashcroft. But how many other examples are there, and why don’t I ever learn? The dumbest-fucking-naive-allegedly-smart person you will ever know: that guy thought this tragedy would at least shake for one second the facade of certainty that is our government, and allow at least a tiny light of recognition to shine through, and in that tiny ray, maybe a question, a pause, a moment of “ok, we need to look at this carefully.” I wasn’t dumb enough to believe that Ortiz could achieve the grace of Reif. But the single gift I wanted was at least a clumsy, hesitating, “we’re going to look at this carefully, and think about whether mistakes might have been made.”

But oh Lucy, you’ve done it again.

Ortiz’s statement is a template for all that is awful in what we as a political culture have become. And it pushes me — me, the most conventional, wanting-to-believe-in-all-things-patriotic, former teenage Republican from the home of Little League baseball — to a place far more radical than I ever want to be. Ortiz wrote:

As a parent and a sister, I can only imagine the pain felt by the family and friends of Aaron Swartz,

Yes, Ms. Ortiz, you obviously can “only imagine.” Because if you felt it, as obviously as Reif did, it would move you first to listen, and then to think. You’re so keen to prove that you understand this case better than your press releases about Aaron’s “crime” (those issued when Aaron still drew breath) made it seem (“the prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain”). But if your prosecutors recognized this, then this is the question to answer:

Why was he being charged with 13 felonies?

His motive was political — obviously. His harm was exactly none — as JSTOR effectively acknowledged. But he deserved, your “career prosecutors” believed, to be deprived of his rights as a citizen (aka, a “felon,” no longer entitled to the political rights he fought to perfect) because of what he did.

Yet here’s the thing to remember on MLK weekend (even though my saying this violates a rule I believe in firmly, a kind of inverse to Godwin’s law, because though I believe these two great souls were motivated by exactly the same kind of justice, King’s cause was greater): How many felonies was Martin Luther King, Jr., convicted of? King, whose motives were political too, but who, unlike Aaron, triggered actions which caused real harm (as in physical damage). What’s that number?

Zero.

And how many was he even charged with in the whole of his career?

Two. Two bogus charges (perjury and tax evasion) from Alabama, which an all-white jury acquitted him of.

This is a measure of who we have become. And we don’t even notice it. We can’t even see the extremism that we have allowed to creep into our law. And we treat as decent a government official who invokes her family while defending behavior which in part at least drove this boy to his death.

I still dream. It is something that Darrell Issa and Zoe Lofgren are thinking along the same lines. On this anniversary of the success of the campaign to stop SOPA — a campaign which Aaron helped architect — maybe I’m right to be hopeful that even this Congress might do something. We’ll see. Maybe they’ll surprise us. Maybe.

But for now, I need to step away. I apologize for the silence. I am sorry for the replies I will not give. Aaron was wrong about very few things, but he was wrong to take his life. I have to return to mine, and to the amazingly beautiful creatures who are trying to pull me back.

I will always love you, sweet boy. Please find the peace you were seeking. And if you do, please find a way to share that too.

(this essay was re-posted with the author’s permission, from his blog entry HERE)



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