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Losing Aaron 199

theodp writes "It's said that you can't fully understand someone until you meet their family. In Janelle Nanos's 'Losing Aaron,' you'll meet Bob Swartz, father of the late Aaron Swartz and adviser to MIT's Media Lab, and get a better understanding of how Aaron's family helped plant the seeds of his idealism. You'll also, sadly, see how MIT — the institution which Bob Swartz long felt stood for compassion and creativity, challenging authority, and pure scientific inquiry — took a self-described stance of 'neutrality' in the aggressive prosecution of his son that ended with Aaron's senseless death last January. 'Clearly I failed,' a tortured Bob Swartz acknowledges. 'There's no question, my son is dead. On the other hand, do I feel that I didn't try hard enough? Yes. Do I feel guilt about not trying hard enough? No. If you understand the distinction I'm trying to make. Could I have done more? Of course I could have done more. Because you can always do more. Did I put everything in that I possibly could? Did I work as hard pretty much as I knew how? Yes. Do I wish I did more? Yes. But I don't go home at night and say, "Well, you didn't care." Because I did. I cared about it more than anything else. And I don't go home at night and say, "I didn't try." Because I tried. Everything I could figure out. But I failed.'"
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Losing Aaron

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  • "Senseless Death?" (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 03, 2014 @10:02AM (#45855779)

    Was he killed by a mob of angry citizens? Wrongfully executed?


    He committed suicide, the coward's solution, after committing a crime. He happily committed the crime, and when he realized there would be consequences to his actions, he decided to avoid them, too.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 03, 2014 @10:11AM (#45855821)

    Yes, his death was senseless, and my heart goes out to his family. Aaron did not deserve to be persecuted, and MIT should be embarrassed for their acquiescence. As a father myself, I can empathized with Aaron's father. It really hurts to know that you've done everything you can, but sometimes it isn't enough.

  • please stop (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 03, 2014 @10:13AM (#45855839)

    Someone who kills themselves rather than go to prison for 4 or maybe 18 months is very sick. Especially when they are independently wealthy, widely considered to be a genius, and have many well connected friends who will help them get back on their feet. I know that Swartz was loved by many people, including those with bully pulpits, but blaming other people for his death is revolting. The people who were close to him blame themselves for not helping him and are lashing out at the prosecutors and MIT.

    As for the prosecution of his case, ask yourself why Swartz didn't access JSTOR with his own account at Harvard.

  • Black swan (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bluefoxlucid ( 723572 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @10:14AM (#45855847) Homepage Journal

    Bob knows that none of the "obvious signs" were really there, that everyone made them up to explain in hindsight what nobody saw coming. He knows he did exactly what he could have done, and he could have done more if he could predict the impossible-to-predict events of the future.

    It's the same thing as 9/11. The FBI, CIA, the executive branch, everyone had all these documents about 3000 terrorist groups and hundreds if not thousands of operations and actions and movements. A lot of hot seats to check into. Then one of those hot seats inexplicably caught fire. Everyone looked back and shouted, "Oh my GOD it was so obvious! We should have known it was going to happen today! Look at the time line! 6 weeks ago, then a month, then just 12 days before the towers came down... it was screaming at us!!" ... but, it wasn't.

    Aaron's death came roughly the same way. When Aaron started doing what he was doing, someone could have predicted easily that somebody might not be amused. Nobody could predict it becoming an outright holy war against one person, nor could they predict that he'd just kill himself instead of having his life crushed and getting shoved into buttsex prison for 18 years per count for 200,000 counts of shit he didn't do wrong. It just happened. The big story of his life has a lead-in, but the really big surprise twists were a total surprise.

  • by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @10:23AM (#45855917) Journal
    Losing a grown child is the unnatural order of things, and parenting is a trial and error process few are properly trained or equipped for.

    Could I have raised him a little differently so this didn't happen? Haunting. To say 'I did my best' is as wholly inaccurate as 'I did my worst' as most all of us fall somewhere in the middle.

    It is pointless self-torture. Perhaps if he'd been taught to react differently in the situation that led to his doom, another earlier timeline close call was not averted.

  • Re: please stop (Score:4, Insightful)

    by iamhassi ( 659463 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @10:24AM (#45855921) Journal
    4 months or 25 years, Aaron could have done more good alive in jail than dead. Death never solves anything. If you're going to die then die fighting for what you believe not by suicide.
  • by TheNastyInThePasty ( 2382648 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @10:25AM (#45855935)

    The worst part is that the appalling behavior of the prosecution is standard practice. Any laws that could possibly apply (and some that have no chance of sticking) get thrown at the defendant in an effort to get them into a plea deal because they can't possibly afford the law talent required to protect themselves.

    Meanwhile, if you have money or power, you are only charged under the laws that absolutely apply and only if they absolutely have proof you did it and are fully at fault. We wind up with corporations, governments, and the wealthy doing incredibly immoral things that obviously should be illegal but are not "technically" illegal or it's just too difficult to prove that they did it, so no prosecutor wants to take it on.

    It's sickening.

  • Re:please stop (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 03, 2014 @10:30AM (#45855999)

    The prosecutor was offering a deal of 6 months in jail. Had Swartz gone to trial and been found guilty of all charges he would have faced perhaps 14 months, maybe more, according to an analysis by Jennifer Granick. There was never any possibility that Swartz would receive a sentence of 25 or 50 years.

  • by sl4shd0rk ( 755837 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @10:32AM (#45856027)

    The helplessness Aaron felt must have been overwhelming. When people in high places conspire against you, there is not much left you can do. They are in control of your life and will twist the legal system into whatever they want in order to satisfy their ego. It's a game to them. Shit needs change.

  • 4 months and what? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 03, 2014 @10:39AM (#45856079)

    Not being allowed to touch a computer again? No ability to get a job with a felony was a felony right?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 03, 2014 @10:57AM (#45856271)

    I see the shills and astroturfers are out in force today. Slow day at Ortiz's office today?

  • Re:Jesus (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 03, 2014 @11:11AM (#45856427)

    I think you're misunderstanding the difference between the colloquial "He was crucified" and what crucifixion actually was.

    Jesus was executed for crimes against the state.

    Aaron was not, nor was he going to be.

  • by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @11:20AM (#45856527) Journal

    If you can't do the time, don't do the crime.

    Ah so because it was illegal, any punishment, no matter how severe is justified, right?

  • Re:please stop (Score:5, Insightful)

    by russotto ( 537200 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @11:40AM (#45856803) Journal

    Someone who kills themselves rather than go to prison for 4 or maybe 18 months is very sick.

    Life after a felony conviction is a living death. You can't get any but the most menial jobs (and often not even them), nor a professional license. You can't travel outside the country. You can legally be denied rental housing. Basically it's the state's way of removing people from society without needing to take the trouble of feeding and housing them. Of course, it works better on "geniuses" than it does on people who were robbing banks for a living anyway -- the latter just go back to robbing banks.

  • by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @11:48AM (#45856911) Journal

    he possible penalties for his crime are right there in the law.

    And any punishment, no matter how disproportionate, is justified, right?

    Actually, the 8th amendment has been read to mean that wildly disproportionate punishments are "cruel". Therefore, no it is actually not clear that 25 years in a federal prison for minor copyright infringement is right there in the law.

    You think his crime deserved a slap on the wrist because you like what he did.

    Please don't make up lies about my motives.

    I think 25 years for minor copyright infringment is wildly unreasonable because no one was harmed significantly by the crime: even the victims wanted the charges dropped. You'd get less for murder. This is not reasonable.

    The prosecutor didn't share your view and was willing to ask for the maximum penalty.

    So? That just means the prosecutor has no morals.

    Because of that, the proper move for the prosecutor is to always seek the maximum penalty because the judge can impose whatever sentence the judge wishes within the bounds of the law which often means less than what the prosecution asks for AND it encourages defendants to make a deal and save the expense of prosecution.

    Basically no. This shit encourages people to avoid fighting the spurious charges because the risk of faiure is so severe (not to mention wildly disproportionate) that it's worth copping to a lesser crime unless they can afford top notch legal representation.

    Threatening people with 25 years in prison for minor copyright infringement is morally wrong, no matter how much you quote the law.

    If you still persist in believing that legal==moral, then you might want first to read about "Goodwin's Law" and see how it might very soon apply.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 03, 2014 @12:07PM (#45857151)

    He was not being "persecuted". Claiming that only serves to demean those around the world who really are being persecuted.

  • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Desler ( 1608317 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @12:17PM (#45857279)

    but managed to expose, endanger AND KILL sympathizers and spies working with the US and the UK on the other side.

    Sorry cold fjord, but this is false []. From here []:

    The military's position took another hit Wednesday, as the former brigadier general who headed the Information Review Task Force investigating the leaks said that he had never heard that a source named in the Afghan war logs was killed.

    Though the Taliban had claimed that its review of the war logs led them to an Afghan whom the U.S. military named as a source, the supposed informant the Taliban claimed to have executed was not in fact named in the leaked materials.

    Now-retired Brig. Gen. Robert Carr had wanted to testify about the Taliban's claim Wednesday, but Col. Denise Lind, the military judge presiding over Manning's court-martial, barred such testimony as inadmissible hearsay.

    The revelation supports an assessment by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the rhetoric about the supposed harm caused by the leaks was "fairly significantly overwrought."

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 03, 2014 @12:25PM (#45857373)

    4 months or 25 years, Aaron could have done more good alive in jail than dead. Death never solves anything. If you're going to die then die fighting for what you believe not by suicide.

    You are overlooking that Aaron's decision was not just to avoid jail time. It was also to save his family from bankruptcy for his legal defense. The prosecutor made sure that even if Aaron would be acquitted from all charges, the running tab for that would be in the millions.

    The U.S. "plea deal" system is not just bereaving defendants of a jury trial by the threat of jail time, but rather with the immense cost of an effective defense. If you are innocent, you can buy yourself out of every year of prosecution jail time for about $200000 in legal defense cost. If you are guilty, it gets more expensive and less reliable to buy yourself out, but the main mitigating factor is not innocence but money.

    The prosecutor was going for the 25 year demand. Getting Aaron mostly acquitted would have been a $5000000 job (probably involving an appeal as well).

    Most corrupt judicial systems are cheaper than the U.S.

  • by HBI ( 604924 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @12:27PM (#45857409) Journal

    It was an over-reaction, but the guy wasn't willing to pay the price for civil disobedience. So now the hipster crowd wants to redefine civil disobedience as something that should never inconvenience you.

    This, luckily, is something that will never fly with the public at large, who will continue to think he's a criminal forever.

  • Re:please stop (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Desler ( 1608317 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @12:28PM (#45857421)

    Aaron was set for life financially and it's highly unlikely he wouldn't find another job with his history. It also ignores all the other people with history of computer crime charges that are currently employed as security researchers.

  • Re:Jesus (Score:4, Insightful)

    by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @12:31PM (#45857465) Journal

    I am sure you can explain to us why it was Jesus' own fault to be nailed to a cross.

    Yes, it was his own fault. In fact, it was his own plan, and the very purpose of his life.

  • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tlambert ( 566799 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @12:34PM (#45857521)

    As a military intelligence officer he released military intelligence during wartime in a war that LEGALLY approved by all political parties in both the US and the UK.

    Citation needed.

    Specifically, where are the Articles of War, ratified by both houses of the Congress of the U.S., and signed by the President of the U.S. which are required for the U.S. to actually BE in a state of war, such that this was in fact an act which occurred during wartime?

  • by JWW ( 79176 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @12:46PM (#45857663)

    Don't play the "two systems of justice in America" card on Swartz's behalf.

    Why not? It only proves that even with his wealth and privilege, he wasn't granted any lenience by those in power. He wasn't powerful enough to stop them. He wasn't powerful enough to persuade MIT to get off its ass and help him out (even JSTOR settled things with him).

    The fact that the line dividing us from them is moving up to the point that only fully vested ruling elite are getting protected from aggressive action is troubling.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 03, 2014 @12:58PM (#45857801)

    When prosecutors have every advantage and reason to puff up any charge to a felony
    When prosecutors receive their raises and political position based on WINNING, not JUSTICE
    When legislatures pass laws with outrageous punishments for infractions to gain political favor
    When victims who have lost nothing stand back and let this machine crush people and send them off to prison for life

    That is persecution and everybody on the interwebs is a potential victim of it

  • by Bob9113 ( 14996 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @01:02PM (#45857845) Homepage

    'Clearly I failed,' a tortured Bob Swartz acknowledges. 'There's no question, my son is dead.'

    While I appreciate and respect the balanced view he goes on to express, I think even this opening may be harsher than is deserved.

    This is a screwed up world; a world of pragmatists and sociopaths. When you send a fiercely idealist person out in into the world today, often it does not end well. That is the nature of the modern human condition. I think it is particularly challenging to idealists when pragmatism appears to be winning in The United States -- a nation founded on idealism -- and even more so at MIT -- an iconic temple of rationalism and truth.

    The easiest alternative is to raise a pragmatist instead of an idealist. But the preference for that easy path is the very reason our world is so challenging for idealists. It is better for society, though almost certainly much harder for you, to have tried to make your son a good man and see him lost than to have raised him to compromise his principles. The weight of that can be immense.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 03, 2014 @01:17PM (#45857977)

    It was an over-reaction, but the guy wasn't willing to pay the price for civil disobedience.

    No, his reaction related to a pre-existing mental illness.

    The fact is, he broke the law, and if he had been cooperative when busted, he would have recieved a year or two at most, but probably no jail at all.

  • by bzipitidoo ( 647217 ) <> on Friday January 03, 2014 @01:28PM (#45858087) Journal

    Aaron Swartz didn't commit any real crimes! He didn't violate any rights, except in the imaginations of a few IP trolls.

    He was railroaded by a rapacious justice system that took advantage of the backwardness of our lawmaking. These shameless enforcers were more interested in scoring points and pumping up their crime fighting numbers than in justice. They didn't do their jobs right and should be fired. And fired not just for the persecution of Aaron Swartz. I read of an independent motel that the chief enforcer tried to run out of business through misappplication of the law, and why? Most likely to cut down some of the competition for one of her campaign contributors who is a franchisee for a motel chain. They have shown no mercy to those who should have received mercy, and should not have the privilege of serving the public, should not have further opportunity to ruin lives.

    The laws on the new are always over the top, written hastily by old dogs fearful for the status quo that they love too much. It is only an event like his suicide that shows everyone that the law went too far, paid too much attention to the loss of some old ways and did not give enough allowance to the new. The law should not be in the business of preservation of obsolescence, it should be for upholding justice. It should be balanced. Justice was not served. The public interest was not served. The law, and the too zealous enforcers of it failed us all.

    Shove your self-righteous simplistic "he got what he deserved" attitude. It sure as hell doesn't apply to Aaron Swartz.

  • Binary thinking (Score:5, Insightful)

    by slew ( 2918 ) on Friday January 03, 2014 @03:31PM (#45859501)

    Binary thinking is for the young. The dichotomy of the idealist and the pragmatist is really a failing of idealism that pragmatism is thought to be unprincipled. In most cases, there is no true understanding of an ideal, it is really just an unembodied idea with unforeseen consequences. The truism is that world is changed by people that can change the world, not people that only wish it. Of course one would hope to change the world for the better rather than the worse, but it's the height of arrogance that a single person always know which direction is better.

    It's not easy to raise a pragmatist that realizes every hand is a winner and a loser, and not to count their money when it's sitting at the table... It's much easier to raise an idealist that ignores these facts of life and laments the world for not seeing things the way they do. That's what my 3-yo son does now. He doesn't know the rules to all the games that we play together and the surprising (to him) strategies that seem to work yet, so he makes some assumptions which sometimes don't turn out to be true and that disappoints him (which is reflected in different severity of negative behaviors depending on his energy status / mood).

    I'm hoping to prepare him to experience his own chosen path in life by pointing him in what I think is a good direction and giving him some tools to continue to make his way as he discovers the true rules of various "games" he will experience. I'm sure I too will regret not giving my son enough tools someday, but he owns his own life path...

    On principle (one of the few that I have), my son doesn't have to change the world to be better for me (or the rest of society). Actually, I think that deliberately sending my son on such a mission would be sociopathic behavior on *my* part (might be akin to sending him on a suicide mission if I can be momentarily extra insensitive to the above mentioned situation). However, if he choses to walk that path, I wish him all the luck.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 03, 2014 @04:25PM (#45859975)

    This guy came to MIT (where he had no affiliation) and made a nuisance of himself, denying legitimate MIT users access to services they had paid for, and he did this precisely because he knew that if he did what he was doing at Harvard, he'd probably be fired for it.

    So why exactly should MIT stick up for him?

e-credibility: the non-guaranteeable likelihood that the electronic data you're seeing is genuine rather than somebody's made-up crap. - Karl Lehenbauer