“He Was Killed By the Government”

The Chicago Sun-Times reports on the funeral for Aaron Swartz, the programming savant and progressive activist who has, tragically, become better known since his suicide. The stomach-sinking quote comes from Swartz’s father, abpout his son: “He was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles.” Belatedly, I’m reading occasional Slatester Tim Wu’s remembrance of Swartz, which resurrects an anecdote that seemed cute when it appeared in a recent, fast-selling biography.

Swartz must be compared to two other eccentric geniuses, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who, in the nineteen-seventies, committed crimes similar to, but more economically damaging than, Swartz’s. Those two men hacked A.T. & T.’s telephone system to make free long-distance calls, and actually sold the illegal devices (blue boxes) to make cash. Their mentor, John Draper, did go to jail for a few months (where he wrote one of the world’s first word processors), but Jobs and Wozniak were never prosecuted. Instead, they got bored of phreaking and built a computer. The great ones almost always operate at the edge.

That was then. In our age, armed with laws passed in the nineteen-eighties and meant for serious criminals, the federal prosecutor Carmen Ortiz approved a felony indictment that originally demanded up to thirty-five years in prison.

When we think about current laws that would have ruined big lives, in the Obama years, we probably think about drug laws. Had a few stings in Carter-era Hawaii gone on a little longer, the pot-smoking teen-aged Barack Obama would have been arrested and, in some ways, ruined. As president, Obama has allowed the continuance of drug laws that ruin countless lives. We’ve never had more proof that the drug is basically harmless, and the arrests continue. And what happened to Swartz was infinitely more offensive.