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The Life and Afterlife of Aaron Swartz

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When I met Taren ­Stinebrickner-Kauffman in Brooklyn, she broke down only once during an hour-long conversation, when we came to the subject of what happened to Swartz’s case on the day he died. Just that afternoon, his attorney, Elliot Peters, was making a consequential discovery. There had been a puzzling 34-day delay between the arrest and the request for a warrant to search Swartz’s laptop—longer than the prosecution is allowed. And information that Peters recently received from the U.S. Attorney’s office was strengthening his bid to suppress the searches from that laptop in court. “We were all excited about this,” said Peters, “and I was already thinking of how I was going to cross-examine them, when I got this e-mail from Bob Swartz saying Aaron had committed suicide.”

“If only Aaron had waited another week or so,” ­Stinebrickner-Kauffman said, her face crumpling into tears. The family and their intimate supporters were gearing up for a public fight. The tagline would have been “Save Aaron,” the slogan accompanying it “Nerd does not equal criminal.”

But ­Stinebrickner-Kauffman had already begun to sense the “aversion and cringing” that overtook Swartz when he had to start asking people for money. His fear of being a burden on others, his horror of being made the center of attention, were interfering with his preparation for his own defense.

In order to defend himself, he would have had to confess to everyone that he had made a boneheaded miscalculation that had made him into the imposition on everyone’s time and money that he always feared that he was. He would have to admit that the ailing, depressed, imperfect shadow side of him was just as real as the brilliant, precocious, successful, morally exemplary side that everyone was celebrating.

“I remember talking to him about this; I told him that for someone with such clear vision about so much, one blind spot he had was how much he mattered,” said Wikler. “Aaron took his life in another small room with bare white walls. He couldn’t hear our voices at that moment.”

“He had this thing about not being able to bring yourself to do things you don’t want to do,” ­Stinebrickner-Kauffman said. “Everybody has to do things that they don’t want to do. And we all know that it’s really annoying and maybe even painful. But those kind of things were even harder for him than for most people.” Swartz had said that he would rather spend the rest of his life without a fixed residence, sleeping on other people’s couches, than work at an office job that he did not want to take. “He occupied a higher plane where everything was thinking and writing and doing and meeting with people who were really interesting and smart. And he filled as much of his life as possible with that, far more than anybody else I know. But when it came to having to do something that he didn’t want to do, he couldn’t do it.”

In the end, he didn’t want to be the martyr he has become. The suicide that eventually thrust him into that role was also an attempt to evade it, by evading trial. A weekend side project on an issue he didn’t even care that much about anymore was keeping him firmly ensnared in the past, and might even blot out the new life he was entering.

“I used to tell him the most important thing was never to get caught,” said Norton. “I know these people and I know what they are capable of.” Toward the end of their relationship, Swartz and Norton began to part company on their view of the American political system, which Norton saw as irredeemably fallen and which Swartz had come to believe was preferable to others, in part because it allowed technocratic elites like himself to play an outsize role. “I swear to God that boy just wanted to live inside an episode of The West Wing,” she said. “He wanted to find the halls of power and do his earnest best to make everything a little bit better. And I just believed that was a dead end. And I felt like one of the tragedies of this whole story is that he proved me right.” Among the reasons Swartz turned down the plea bargains, Wikler told me, was that a felony would constrain him from having the kind of life he now wanted: “You can’t be secretary of Commerce,” he said, with a felony conviction. Early on, after his arrest but before his indictment, Swartz was offered an unusual deal—one count of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and three months in jail. He turned even that down.

François de La Rochefoucauld once observed that it’s not enough to have great virtues; one must use them with economy. As I listened to the tributes to Aaron Swartz in Highland Park and New York and online, this aphorism came to mind. Swartz had skipped out on the lessons taught by the American high school—the lessons in cynical acquiescence, conformity, and obedience to the powers that be. He was right to think these lessons injure people’s innate sense of curiosity and morality and inure them to mediocrity. He was right to credit his “arrogance” for the excellence of the life he lived. But if nothing else, these lessons prepare people for a world that can often be met in no other way; a world whose irrational power must sometimes simply be endured. This was a lesson that he contrived never to learn, which was part of what made him so extraordinary. It was Swartz’s misfortune, and ours, that he learned it too late, from too unyielding a teacher. It cannot serve society’s purpose to make a felon and an inmate out of so gifted and well-meaning a person as ­Aaron Swartz, and thus he was a victim of a grave injustice. But it bears remembering that the greater injustice was done to Aaron Swartz by the man who killed him.


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