Image credit: Taren SK via Tumblr
Was Aaron Swartz killed by depression or by the bullying of the U.S. Attorney’s Office? In the aftermath of his suicide in January, there have been many blog posts, columns, editorials, and articles on both sides of the debate. Those closest to Aaron have taken the latter view, that the harsh treatment by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Massachusetts, which charged him with 13 felonies for downloading millions of academic articles from the online database JSTOR, caused his death. His friend, lawyer and copyright activist Lawrence Lessig, said at his funeral, “Aaron was depressed because God is depressed. Look at this world and what we have done—who wouldn’t be depressed?” His father, Robert Swartz, went as far as to say, “Aaron did not commit suicide but was killed by the government.” Aaron’s girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, explained her view in detail in a recent blog post entitled, “Why Aaron Died.”
I believe that Aaron’s death was not caused by depression.
I say this with the understanding that many other people would not have made the same choice that Aaron made, even under the same pressures he faced.
I say this not in any way to understate the pain he was in — nor, for that matter, the pain that clinically depressed people are in.
I say this despite the fact that early on in our relationship, I had read and discussed with him his infamous blog post about suicide written years before — so I was not unaware that he had struggled with mental health in the past.
I believe Aaron’s death was caused by exhaustion, by fear, and by uncertainty. I believe that Aaron’s death was caused by a persecution and a prosecution that had already wound on for 2 years (what happened to our right to a speedy trial?) and had already drained all of his financial resources. I believe that Aaron’s death was caused by a criminal justice system that prioritizes power over mercy, vengeance over justice; a system that punishes innocent people for trying to prove their innocence instead of accepting plea deals that mark them as criminals in perpetuity; a system where incentives and power structures align for prosecutors to destroy the life of an innovator like Aaron in the pursuit of their own ambitions.
Ask yourself this: If on January 10, Steve Heymann and Carmen Ortiz at the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office had called Aaron’s lawyer and said they’d realized their mistake and that they were dropping all charges — or even for that matter that they were ready to offer a reasonable plea deal that wouldn’t have marked Aaron as a felon for the rest of his life — would Aaron have killed himself on January 11?
The answer is unquestionably no.
I agree with her.
Of course, not everyone in Aaron’s situation would have committed suicide. People are born with all different temperaments; some optimistic and some pessimistic; some thin-skinned and others able to shrug off criticism; some easily upset by adversity and others more resilient. A profile of Aaron recently published by Slate describes his tendency to become frustrated with situations and people that did not live up to his ideals or suit his personality. For example, he dropped out of high school because he philosophically disagreed with traditional organized education and then out of college because his peers weren’t intellectual enough. He left his job at Reddit because working in an office environment didn’t agree with him. It seems that when it comes to finding happiness and contentment, Aaron was relatively picky. Many, if not most, people don’t love their high schools, colleges, or jobs, but they continue at them because that’s what they’re expected to do, or because they simply need the money. But there’s nothing wrong with the way Aaron was, and there’s no reason to criticize him for reacting to the challenges he faced in the way that he did.