In announcing his plans to strengthen the nation’s gun control laws, President Obama used this compelling argument: “[I]f there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.” A week earlier, Vice-President Biden said, “If your actions result in only saving one life, they’re worth taking.” I hope we all agree with these fine sentiments, whether you are a member of the NRA or opposed to everything they stand for.
The question I pose: Should these sentiments apply to the tragic death of Aaron Swartz or will his death be swept under the rug? Right now, there is an intense spate of anger and calls for justice, but will they quickly dissipate as people move on to the next outrage?
Who was Aaron Swartz? He was a computer programmer and Internet freedom activist. He committed suicide a couple of weeks ago at the young age of 26. When he was 14, Swartz played a key role in developing the RSS software that is still widely used by people to manage what they read on the Internet. As a teenager, he also played a vital role in the creation of Reddit, the wildly popular social networking news site. He became a legend in the Internet programming world before he was 18.
In 2008, Swartz targeted Pacer, the online service that provides access to court documents for a per-page fee. Along with a friend, Swartz created a program to download millions of those documents and put them into the public domain for free. He was investigated by the FBI, but never charged. In July 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly targeting JSTOR, the online publishing company that digitizes and distributes scholarly articles written by academics and sells them to subscribers. JSTOR offended many free-data activists because it charged fees for access to these articles but did not compensate the authors, and numbers of people were denied access to the scholarship. The indictment filed against Swartz alleged that he used his access as a Harvard fellow to the JSTOR system to download millions of articles with the intent to distribute them online at no cost. When he was detected and his access was cut off, the indictment claims he trespassed into an MIT computer-wiring closet in order to physically download the data onto his laptop.
Swartz never distributed any of these downloaded articles. Once arrested, he returned everything he downloaded. JSTOR told federal prosecutors that it did not want to prosecute. Nevertheless, he was charged with multiple felonies which could result in a sentence of several decades in prison and millions in fines.
According to the Wall Street Journal just two days before his suicide, federal prosecutors had rejected a plea bargain offer from Swartz’s lawyers that would have kept him out of prison. They demanded he “would need to plead guilty to every count” and made clear that “the government would insist on prison time.” Swartz’s girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, told the WSJ that the case had drained him of all his money and he could not afford to pay for a trial. His father has said that his son “was killed by the government.”
U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz defended her actions in a statement on Thursday. Her husband, IBM Corp executive Thomas J. Dolan, took to Twitter in response to prominent critics, and harshly criticized the Swartz family for assigning blame to prosecutors.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a Republican, has announced a formal investigation into the Justice Department’s conduct in this case. Democratic Rep. Jared Polis proclaimed that “the charges were ridiculous and trumped-up” and labeled Swartz a “martyr,” while Rep. Zoe Lofgren denounced the prosecutors’ behavior as “pretty outrageous” and “way out of line.” A petition on the White House’s website to fire the U.S. Attorney quickly exceeded the 25,000 signatures.
Surely, this prosecution deserves a serious, non-partisan investigation. It should be neither a rush to judgment nor any form of witch hunt. The investigation should be independent of any political agenda and focus on the need to bring about the meaningful reform of our prosecutorial system. Prosecutors are vested with the extraordinary power to investigate, prosecute, bankrupt, and use the power of the state to imprison people for decades. They have the corresponding obligation to exercise judgment and restraint in how that power is used. When they fail to do so, lives are ruined – or even ended. If the end result is merely the destruction of a few individual prosecutors, a great opportunity will be lost.
Specifically, a legitimate investigation should examine whether our nation’s laws and prosecutorial power are being abused to crush and destroy those who engage in activism. The investigation should not be limited to merely the propriety of charging Aaron Swartz with a crime. The issue goes beyond whether he was being charged or threatened completely out of proportion to what he did or for ends that have nothing to do with the proper administration of justice. As Michael Moynihan wrote in the Daily Beast, “Those outraged by Swartz’s suicide and looking to convert their anger into action would be best served by focusing their attention on the brutishness and stupidity of America’s criminal justice system.”
It should bother us when Clive Crook, a renowned journalist for the Atlantic Monthly says: “As a foreigner, I’m surprised that Americans aren’t more alarmed by the workings of their criminal justice system. I don’t know what ought to scare me more about living in the United States–that I might be the victim of a crime (which happens), or that this ferocious prosecutorial system might one day turn its wrath on me. I’d rather be mugged than threatened with years in jail for something I didn’t even know was a crime. Is this justice system actually on my side? I’m by no means sure–an astounding state of affairs.”
The President and much of the nation hope that, as a result of the recent shootings in Connecticut and Colorado, we will finally come together to enact gun control laws to help prevent similar tragedies. Let’s also hope that out of a similar tragedy we can come to do something about our system of justice.
Prosecutors’ threats of long prison terms backed up by sentencing guidelines, civil forfeiture, and huge fines are commonplace in the United States. Aaron Swartz was one young man caught in our system, but these tactics and worse have been used against millions of victims of our country’s war on its own citizens. We should all wake up and finally hear the cries of millions warehoused to a permanent underclass – victims of individual thirst for power and the influence of money on justice. Isn’t it ironic that it took the death of a lone white Jewish computer whiz to awaken the power of the Internet, a few politicians, the media, and perhaps our country to the abuse of power by prosecutors and the realities of our criminal justice system?
President Obama has an opportunity to turn the tragedy of Swartz’s death to a positive, but it won’t happen with a partisan circus or a few well-meaning bills introduced in Congress that die in committee. If a single life is worth saving, how about millions?