Saturday, January 19, 2013
On Melancholy Hill
Why did Aaron see no other choice? He faced a thirty year prison sentence, if the case against him went to trial. Had he accepted the prosecution's plea bargain, he would have only served a short amount of time, but he would be labelled a felon for the rest of his life. Neither option spoke to Aaron. He did not wish to see his dreams for a professional career disappear. He saw a way out, and he took it. Aaron bears the blame of having made that final decision, but the circumstances surrounding the case against him opens the door for discussion about the importance of intellectual property.
Aaron illegally downloaded academic articles from an online network called JSOTR, and his crime was caught on tape by MIT. He did not deny the charge. Aaron argued for universal access to knowledge, giving the entire world an avenue to gather information that did not require wealth. He disagreed with the distribution method which was being used, and although he did break a law by downloading the material, he did not harm any individual physically, or even directly. Aaron was essentially a thief, but one with noble intentions. In the eyes of the law, however, Aaron was a criminal, deserving no consideration of motive or ethos. They threatened to lock him up for over thirty years, if he did not cooperate and accept the designation of felon.
Felonies are a big deal.
You might want to say, "Well, he still didn't need to kill himself. A felony is not the end of the world." You would be right, but also very, very wrong. A felony will follow you for the rest of your life. Any application for employment will illustrate for the stigmatizing effect of such a conviction. While we do not live in the world of Jean Valjean, where criminals are shuffled from community to community, never welcomed and always ostracized for a few words on a piece of paper, primarily dangerous, criminal, and probation. While certain people may look beyond the stigma, many turn off their empathy in the presence of criminals, because all criminals are obviously the same...
We, as a society, need to re-examine our ideas of crime and punishment. Determining motive is an important step, but one that relies upon a criminal's self-reporting as much as the particulars of the crime. Calculating the damage caused by a criminal act is the next step, but this is also fraught with subjectivity. From Aaron's perspective, no body was hurt, only their pocketbooks. From the standpoint of a judge, I would look at Aaron's crime as a punishable offense, but not one that required imprisonment. Aaron was not a dangerous individual, he was an impassioned young man who believed he could change the world. He wanted to share knowledge, but he did so against the wishes of the authority. He deserved to be punished, but he did not deserve to be branded a felon.
Our justice system faces problems like this on a daily basis. Does the recreational pot user deserve a twenty-year sentence, for possessing a substance which grows wild across the entire earth and does not lead to violence against others? Does the young street youth, charged as an adult, possess more guilt than the businessman in the three-piece suit being indicted for fraud? Why do the bankers who launder drug money deserve leniency, while the pawns in the drug game deserve the harshest punishments law can provide? The application of justice is not color-blind, nor is it blind to wealth and privilege. We need to rethink the reasons for incarceration.
Aaron never inflicted physical harm, and yet for his crime, he was threatened to a prison term longer than some rapists, pedophiles, and murderers. For such a fellow kindred soul, who unfortunately succeeded where I once thankfully failed, I will keep his idealism alive. I also believe in sharing the mysteries of the world. Teaching and learning should not be restricted to the well-to-do. Scientific knowledge, shared properly, can improve lives across the world. Restricting such a source, in my mind, simply does not compute. Aaron died despondent, likely unsure of what he had once believed in so strongly. For anyone else thinking of taking the same road, be careful, and watch your head. Realize that life is more important than anything. Do not rationalize it all away.