Aaron Swartz

The tragic story has been everywhere over the last week.  I don’t have anything interesting to add, but I thought Lawrence Lessig did:

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. What’s that number?


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.


Emphasis supplied.

I’ve dealt with this aspect of the Aaron Swartz episode numerous times – at least once in official court filings no less – but it seems to have always fallen upon deaf ears.  Yet the coarsening of our humanity in the past few decades is as unmistakable as it is disturbing.

In 1952 the US Supreme Court was outraged that in order to secure evidence some cops in California took their suspect to a hospital to have his stomach involuntarily pumped.  So outraged they overturned the suspect’s conviction.  But almost 50 years later in 2003, the SCOTUS (other than Justice Stevens in dissent) didn’t bat an eye at police ignoring repeated pleas – from a man they themselves had shot and seriously wounded – to stop questioning him and give him medical treatment.

I suppose it has something to do with the immediate aftermath of WWII.  We were more sensitive to tyranny and official cruelty then, and not blind to the potential that we might be guilty of it just as others had been.  As our collective memory of those events has receded, though, so has our awareness of the hidden dangers of power, prominent among them being the glib indifference to conduct that plainly constitutes official torture.

Torture is as torture does, you know.



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