The Unknowable Truth of Aaron Swartz

The Atlantic Wire

In an attempt to explain the inexplicable death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, some of the country's best journalists, most outspoken activists, and his closest friends have devoted thousands upon thousands of emotional words with few answers to a young man who took his own life nearly two months ago. The latest comes from The New Yorker's Larissa MacFarquhar, who today offers up over 10,000 words on Swartz's suicide, after 7,000-plus words over the weekend here at The Atlantic from his old girlfriend, Quinn Norton. And those are just the most recent additions to lengthy pieces from Slate, The New Republic, New YorkThe Verge, and Ars Technica. (Reuters's Felix Salmon collected the Swartz "long-reads" word counts on Twitter today; for those interested, Slate tops out at over 15,000 words.) Of course, Swartz was a co-founder of Reddit who later went on to champion access to information — he was a man of the Internet people, and so makes for a heartbreaking Internet story. But when it comes to suicide without a note, to a life lost too soon, the answer to the simplest question — Why? — often devolves into a race to the bottom.

RELATED: Aaron Swartz's Legal Troubles Were Getting Worse in the Days Before His Suicide

From the beginning, Swartz's supporters, including his girlfriend and parents, have publicly blamed a U.S. federal case — and the legal team therein — for driving him to death at age 26. But the argument that the case weighed so heavily on Swartz still doesn't satisfy those closest to him, as The New Yorker's MacFaquhar explains: "This claim is for public consumption, and the people closest to him do not really believe it," she writes. "They believe that he would not have killed himself without the prosecutors, but they feel that there is something missing from this account—some further fact, a key, that will make sense of what he did."

RELATED: Aaron Swartz Isn't the First Hacker to Commit Suicide in the Face of a Federal Investigation

That key is the key to our collective obsession with Aaron Swartz's death. But can it ever be found? MacFaquhar collects testimonials from all sorts people related to Swartz — his friends, his parents, his attorney, Norton (the former girlfriend), Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman (the more recent girlfriend, who's looked for answers beyond depression and the case herself). The New Yorker story also pieces together blog posts and unpublished writings in search of more clues.

RELATED: A Guide to the Finger-Pointing After Aaron Swartz's Suicide

The assemblage reads like an annotated biography of Swartz's life and death, with tales from his upbringing in Highland Park through his short time at Stanford — before he dropped out — to his suicidal reaction to getting fired from Reddit after Condé Nast bought it. Eventually we get insight into Swartz's activist spirit, before turning to the case and his fatal end. Every bit of information serves to inform the final act. He had ulcerative colitis, which happened to flare up at the same time as other moments of depression, for example. He didn't like vegetables and couldn't stand the "silly" people at Stanford. He was concerned with "human welfare" more than hacking. 

RELATED: MIT Says Its Gunman Hoax Claimed to Be Retaliating for Aaron Swartz's Suicide

With all this context behind us, MacFaquhar's story then grasps for the key, looking for a final motive by talking with the very people who will never fully grasp it — which is to say, everyone else besides Aaron Swartz. From Norton, for example:

“He wanted to make the world better from inside the system, and they don’t let felons work in the White House,” Quinn Norton says. “He said those exact words to me. My dad didn’t last very long with his felony conviction. It’s like being a fucking leper, and for somebody who wanted to move in the circles of American political power it was the end of all those dreams. I knew it was a really dangerous period, I knew this was all going through his head."

And then, there's a theory from Swartz's dad, Robert: 

There was what happened with Quinn, which I think had to be very devastating to him. Quinn got her own attorney, who told her to coöperate with the prosecutor. There are interviews which I’ve now read with the Secret Service where they say she coöperated fully with them; she signed a proffer saying that she would tell them everything she knew in return for immunity.

And another from mentor Lawrence Lessig (pictured above at right with a young Swartz):

I think it was just recognizing he was going to need other people, and that was too hard for him to accept. He couldn’t become dependent. To end it was the only way

Add these theories to the thousands-of-words-long portrayals over the past seven and a half weeks, and they amount to just that: theories, piling up, compounding into nothing beyond more confusion and sadness. Even with all the context in the world, we will never know what went through Swartz's head that fateful night. And yet we seek more — more details, more information, more anecdotes. Go ahead and read all 20,000 fresh words to surface on the Internet in the past 24 hours about Aaron Swartz. If you're interested in him as a person, as a defendant, as an activist, as a boyfriend, or as a son, they bring fresh detail. Looking for answers? All the words on the Internet can't give you that. 

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