The Boiling Point Of Aaron Swartz’s Suicide

The more I read about Aaron Swartz, the more he seemed like a hero from an Ayn Rand novel. Unfortunately, accompanying his Randian hero-like intelligence, moral IQ, and frustration that the rest of the population ignorantly resists progression was the nonfiction of his flaws. Swartz was too idealistic to work within the confines of the system, but instead of being able to trudge on heroically against the wrongs of our government, was human enough to let the fear of it dictate his present and erase his future.

It’s hard to work within a system, though, when the disparity between a nation’s collective aptitude and principles is so great from your own. I’m guessing Aaron Swartz felt very lonely, and at the end, hopeless and defeated while staring at felony charges and many, many years in prison.


One needn’t be a genius to see how his story highlights the disparity of what the American State is today vs. what it ought to be. Most telling: we live in a time when our society is increasingly less tolerant of those who bully. And given the recent history of bullying-related tragedies, Americans have charged their legal system to stand up and prosecute bullies. How counter-intuitive, counter-productive, and frankly, just plain sad is it, then, that the U.S. justice system is itself doing the bullying.

Aaron’s family released this statement following his death:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

The crime Aaron was charged with was logging into the MIT servers and copying large amounts of their academic research journals. The material wasn’t classified, was publicly funded, and free to see–though limited in the amount one could access. Regardless, the United States intended to prosecute him to the fullest extent.

Is Aaron Swartz America’s Mohamed Bouazizi?

Mohamed Bouazizi was the Tunisian street vendor who, after being harassed for years by the government, needing to go into debt for his day’s inventory, and then having these goods confiscated by the government once more, set himself on fire outside his city’s mayor’s office to protest the corruption and abuse of the State.

The reaction of his death was enormous. Tunisian citizens rose in protest all over the country, to the point of ousting President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ending his 23-year rule. Then, things spread all over the Arab world, toppling leaderships in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen as well as uprisings and protests in several other Arab nations.

A first look at these two men reveal more contrasts than comparisons. Bouazizi was poor his whole life, and as a street vendor, hadn’t been on a path that would have changed that. Aaron Swartz grew up in Chicago. As a boy genius, he was able to to make connections early on for his professional development. He accomplished great things: at 14, he worked on the team that developed RSS 1.0, an early system for dispersing content online. Then before he was 20, he started the Internet company, Infogami, which later would merge with now-popular site, Reddit.

Yet both men committed suicide, and in doing so, shone a spotlight on the problems in their respective worlds.

Corruption that Bouazizi suffered had long gone on in Tunisia. Yet Bouazizi’s suicide made his fellow countrymen notice all which was so wrong in Tunisia. Through Aaron, we see that the entity designed to prevent bullying becomes its biggest perpetrator. His case brings up issues of intellectual property, and perhaps most important, our overall ideas of justice.

The commentor, jimbles, in response to this Ars Technica article, wraps up my sentiment beautifully:

The position of prosecutor should be a pulpit for government-backed bullying as much as our prison system should be utilized as a punishment chamber rather than a rehabilitation center. We have such incredibly demented, warped views on what is acceptable conduct to unleash upon those that we view as having ‘transgressed’ our rules, because we as a society are so constantly pining to paint a portrait of a serial offender and congratulate ourselves when we make such fine examples of them with our disproportionate, wild west frontier justice. Slap on the back, three cheers, our children are safe from bogeymen once again.

Prosecutors are rewarded not for protecting society from those harmful, but for punishing as many people who break laws as possible–whether they are a threat to us or not. The cost is extraordinary, and now America, the land of the free, has the highest incarceration rate in the world. And while going after low-power individuals like Aaron Swartz for allegedly stealing journals, the American government rewards those who lost swaths of wealth through irresponsible banking by giving them taxpayer dollars via the bailouts.

We’re yet to see whether more parallels between Mohamed Bouazizi and Aaron Swartz can be made. If more are to be made, it will come as reactions in the aftermath. For Bouazizi, his death, and the awakening it gave to his people, was like the 212th degree in the pot of hot water, starting the boil. People suddenly had no patience for the areas of their lives that had been worsened by the Tunisian State, each area now boiling over and revealing itself as unacceptable and needing to be surfaced.

Aaron’s death similarly represents so much of what is wrong with fundamental bases of the the United States of America. I hope change occurs as a result of his death, too, that it’s also a boiling point, so that we don’t lose future Aarons and that future Johns and Janes aren’t continually hindered by the systemic problems of the United States.

to new plateaus,


Aaron Swartz 1986-2013


5 Responses

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  2. Dave

    Either you’ve ever read an Ayn Rand novel or you know nothing about Aaron Swartz. If you’d done both of those things, you’d know that Aaron Swartz was a bleeding-heart Mother Teresa collectivist worshipper who scorned money who is akin to an Ayn Rand villain, not a hero.

    And she’d be right to characterize him that way. He was offered a six month plea deal that he turned down because he refused to plead guilty. He got what he deserved because he used a different standard of value than that of Aaron Swartz’s life. If he had used that standard, he never would have broken into a closet to engage to become a felon that produced no benefit for himself.

    Swartz’s death *does* represent so much of what is wrong with the United States but it’s not what for what you say. It’s America’s embrace of altruism. You should read Ayn Rand to find out more.

    1. I wished I would’ve seen your comment sooner. It’s a good one. You’re right. Aaron, in many ways, wasn’t like an Ayn Rand character (I have read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged).

      But I still saw a resemblance and so expressed it. The resemblance was that he was an idealist who saw the wrongs of the law and decided to buck it.

      1. Dave

        It was hyperbole to say you knew nothing about Aaron Swartz. I apologize about that, but I think I was right that you missed something and I’m glad you acknowledged that. You’re also right he was an idealist, but he had self-destructive ideals.

        There isn’t really a match to any particular character I can think of, but maybe there is a kind of complementary character in Gail Wynand, a tragic hero in The Fountainhead. But he’s not the main hero, and the tragic element is important. Wynand abandons morality for practicality. Swartz is like the antithesis of Wynand in that he abandons the practical for what he thinks of as the moral (but it is not the same morality of Roark or similar to Wynand’s). Wynand is also very skilled like Swartz was. I think that’s a big stretch though.

        I don’t think “idealistic” is sufficient for someone to be an Ayn Rand hero. Looking up “Ayn Rand Hero” in Wikipedia says it should be someone who pursues their values despite opposition from the collective. I think It’s easy to look at the Swartz situation and make that bad judgement based on the facts. But a few things make that not true:

        1.) If you read his blog, you’ll see Swartz did what he did out of a sense of moral duty, not because he *valued* the things he was doing. This alone disqualifies him from Ayn Rand hero status. Roark blew up a building because he loved architecture, it was blasphemy, and it was his intellectual property taken without his consent. He was ready to go to prison for his love and to defend a principle that supported his ability to do what he loved. I don’t know what Swartz loved, but he certainly couldn’t love downloading articles without consent because there’s no creativity involved in that. He probably killed himself because he read some philosophers who convinced him of the idea of sacrifice for the greater good (John Rawls and Peter Singer, who he wrote one post about), in order to destroy the very idea of intellectual property.

        2.) What he was doing was in reality not heroic in any sense: he was trying to steal intellectual property in order to give it away. If you understand why we need intellectual property, you will no longer see him as a hero.

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