The Boiling Point of Aaron Swartz’s Suicide

Has Aaron Swartz’s death exposed state corruption?

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.


In Canada and the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In the U.K., ring the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.

This was previously published on New Plateaus.

Read more on Suicide.

Image credit:

About Brandon Ferdig

Brandon Ferdig is writer from Minneapolis, MN. He shares his personal growth pieces, human interest stories, and commentary at his blog. He is currently writing a book titled New Plateaus in China, a compilation of travelogue, personal experience, human interest, and social observations from China. You can follow Brandon on Twitter @brandonferdig.


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Thoreau went willingly to jail. Saves on attorney fees.
    This guy was, as he said, going to hack all the unpublic info he could find, and wasn’t going to stop.
    The law says don’t do that. Thing is, this doesn’t seem like a big deal, and since JSTOR gave the stuff away for free not long after, they can’t show they lost a lot of money. But if it’s your intellectual property and you do lose on being hacked, then maybe you’ll want a prosecution.
    That said, federal prosecutors rarely lose a case. I’d think they would lose more, just because. But maybe they have more leverage–your brother, you know, the gay one, could go to prison for….–than is socially useful.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Two problems: Explosion of the regulatory state. That is, you can commit three felonies a day breaking laws and regs you never knew existed. You are protected by the prosecutors’ workloads. But if they have a reason to get you, they will find something. At three a day, a couple of years’ worth of felonious behavior will give them something. Or a relative.
    Absolute prosecutorial discretion–see David Gregory–in favor of the wealthy and connected.
    You’d think, this being MA and all, that corrupt pols would be keeping the prosecutors busy enough. But see prosecutorial discretion.
    Also the selling of presidential pardons. Marc Rich, ex.

Speak Your Mind