By all accounts, Aaron Swartz was a wunderkind in the truest sense. At age 14, the Chicago native helped develop computer code that became “Real Simple Syndication,” or RSS feeds, a staple of technology used by millions of websites across the world. He co-founded the message board Reddit, a social news website that has gained an audience of millions.
At age 26, he was a young man destined to do great things, perhaps some day to take his place among American tech pioneers such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. But that bright future won’t come to be.
Swartz hanged himself last week in a Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment, apparently in despair over what his parents called the government’s threats and intimidation related to a cyber crime that he committed. What a sad end to such a promising life.
Swartz broke into a closet at MIT and downloaded “an extraordinary amount” of academic articles that are only available through a paid subscription service called JSTOR. He faced the potential of over three decades in jail. It wasn’t the first time Swartz had broken into secure computers in order to freely release information to the public — he had done the same with material from the Library of Congress and federal court records. He believed that public information should be free and accessible to all.
Swartz’s death is a tragedy that reminds us of the empty and bitter end that is suicide. It is an ultimate act of desperation and pain that creates a ripple of guilt, anger and sadness among friends, family and loved ones.
And that is certainly the case with Swartz’s death. The recriminations and angry tears are flowing furiously right now, as his parents and legions of fans seek to place blame on the Boston-based U.S. Attorney’s office that leveled the charges, and on MIT. Some 31,000 people have signed a petition demanding the removal of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz.
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” Swartz’s family wrote in a statement. “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.”
MIT has expressed its extreme sadness over his death, and the U.S. Attorney’s office has been quiet, although it has leaked out that Swartz had been offered a six-month deal of some sort.
Whatever the circumstances that led to his suicide may be, we look at Swartz and see a young man who possessed the rare talent to leave a lasting mark on the world.
Instead, his survivors will grapple with anger, sadness, guilt, and unanswered questions for years to come. For some, their lives will never be the same. And always, that is the bitter fruit of suicide.