By now you have no doubt heard about the suicide of Reddit founder and political activist Aaron Swartz. In all likelihood you have probably read about the vindictive and disproportionate federal prosecution that, according to friends and family, likely led to Aaron's suicide. You may have even read about how the same prosecutor had previously harassed a young hacker into a similar fate. These details are widely available and there is little point to rehash them any further here.
Let me be clear. I didn't know Aaron Swartz. In fact, I didn't really even know of him. Sure I may have heard his name once or twice, may have seen his face, may have heard Glenn Greenwald mention him. But with Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Jeremy Hammond all facing seemingly more serious charges, his name got lost in the shuffle. This is a tragedy of the modern world: with injustice all around us, how can one keep track? Or at least that's what we tell ourselves, that's how we console ourselves, that's how continue to live the way that we do. It's fortunate, however, that not everyone follows our example. Otherwise people like Aaron Swartz wouldn't exist.
Nor am I anyone particularly special. A little over a year younger than Bradley Manning and a few years younger than Aaron, I haven't accomplished anything of comparable merit. If I had, no doubt I would currently be facing jail time. That certainly seems to be where our government chooses to send people if they have accomplished anything particularly noteworthy. So who am I really to talk about Aaron Swartz? In short, I killed him. Or should I say, we killed him. Maybe not directly, and perhaps some of us can attempt to escape responsibility in that fashion, but this is a minor point. It's easy to suggest that the U.S. government killed Aaron Swartz. Harder to recognize that the government is merely a reflection of ourselves. Our support, our indifference has led to the creation of society in which a person can be hounded to death for seemingly nothing more than advocating an unwelcome thought. Lessig is right when he talks about shame: the government should be ashamed, the prosecutor should be ashamed, but so should we. In a democratic society, the buck ultimately stops with us citizens and we allowed this. Just like we tortured Bradley Manning and Jeremy Hammond. Aaron's work with stopping SOPA proved that if people care enough about something, then they can change policy. But oh well, it's not like Wikipedia is shut down for a day, people are just getting killed and tortured, so why should we care enough to do something? Noam Chomsky once wrote about The Responsibility of Intellectuals, but what about the responsibility of everyday people? These crimes can only persist if we allow them to. They require, at the very least, our tacit approval. Let us not deny the obvious: A man lies dead, we killed him.
Which comes to my next point. Glenn Greenwald called Aaron Swartz a hero, but he wasn't a hero. Not really. Just like Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Jeremy Hammond aren't heroes. It isn't heroic to not look away when you see great crimes being committed, it's not heroic to decide to dedicate yourself to public good instead private wealth. If Bradley Manning turned away from the information he saw, or if Swartz decided to be another Zuckerberg, then they would have been complicit members of a horrifying system based on greed and lawlessness. The question must be asked: How is not doing something horrible considered heroic? I always thought that that was just common decency. Because heroes don't actually exist outside of comic books. Reality is simply made up of people, complex people, frustrating people. Some of these people, though far too few, choose to live socially responsible lives... but they aren't Batman, they are just decent men in indecent times. We shouldn't look up to them, but look at ourselves. Because if these people aren't heroic, if these people are just decent, then what does that make us? At some point we must ask to what extent are we just calling people heroes to hide the shame of our own failures?
As long as we paint common acts of decency as something remarkable, we make our own inaction more palatable. It becomes decent to simply not do anything dreadful, but heroic to do something positive. It justifies our comfortable lives of excess and indifference in which we shrug off all social responsibility. Thankfully some of us do not. People like Aaron Swartz, Bradley Manning, Jeremy Hammond, and various others. So here is to those men and women who are brave enough to be decent, there are too few of you, and one less now.