Aaron Swartz is gone but his legacy lives on. In my article for the current issue of Academe, I offered a few reasons why his brief life, including his prosecution, is worth remembering. Here are a few more ways in which Swartz’s tragedy intersects with the broader political world.
The same year that Swartz was charged with downloading too many articles, and in the same city, Boston, Egyptian-American dissident Tarek Mehanna faced similar accusations from the office of the same prosecutor, Carmen Ortiz. In the years leading up to his arrest, while Swartz was busy promoting his agenda of global open access, Mehanna was busy discussing the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in online forums, and translating Arabic materials on Islam into English. Mehanna argued for the right of Muslim peoples invaded by other countries to self-defense. He discouraged his fellow Muslims from gratuitous acts of violence, but defended anti-American violence in contexts where he perceived this violence to be legitimate.
As punishment for his dangerous opinions, Mehanna was sentenced to seventeen years in a Supermax. The prosecutor never claimed that Mehanna had ever done anything to harm anyone, or expressed any intention to do so. The object of prosecution was his mind, not his actions. As evidenced by his sentencing statement, Mehanna understands the hypocrisy of such logic when implemented by a country for which freedom of expression is one of its founding principles.
The cases of Swartz and Mehanna differ in their causes and implications, but both demonstrate the destructive impact of prosecutorial overreach on human lives, as well as the ways in which mainstream American culture, along with its prosecutorial legal apparatus, works to silence dissent in the post 9/11 age. Had Swartz lived to hear Mehanna’s story, we can only imagine the ingenious technologies he would have invented to protect the right of people like Mehanna to dissent.
Political theorist Andrew March, who served as an expert witness in Mehanna’s trial, offered a profound indictment of the American criminal justice system, and the flawed logic underwriting its persecution of dissent. Glenn Harlan Reynolds considers the problem of prosecutorial overreach broadly with respect to Swartz’s case and other similar abuses of power. (See here an open access version of Reynolds’ article.)
Aaron Swartz is dead. Tarek Mehanna remains incarcerated. Academia has so far remained largely silent concerning both injustices. Let’s try to bring that silence to an end. To start, you might consider boycotting Elsevier, and writing to your congressperson about Mehanna’s case.