Society drives you to suicide but when you go pull the trigger, they tell you your life is worthwhile and that we need you. Maybe society needs to stop sending so many mixed messages.
What is the job of the news media? To report the news. Everyone agrees about that. But some well-intentioned self-imposed ethical guidelines that members of the news media take for granted are getting in the way of the industry’s fundamental mission: telling everything they know to a public whose right to know is sacred.
You know journalists have lost their way when they cheer the arrest and potential extradition to the U.S. of WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange. Any of us could be next; we should be circling the wagons. Yet they insist on focusing on such inanities as Assange’s personality, his “arrogance,” even his cat. Some even approve.
The other day NPR’s “Morning Edition” covered the 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Everyone over age 40 remembers what happened: suffering from depression, chronic pain and opiate addiction, the singer put a shotgun in his mouth and blew his head off.
It’s one of the most famous suicides ever. NPR chose to be coy about it, mostly referring to Cobain’s “death” rather than his “suicide.”
Airbrushing well-known reality is silly. But, like most American media outlets, NPR was merely following the World Health Organization’s published guidelines on covering suicide. According to experts news accounts of suicide can feed a phenomenon called “suicide contagion” wherein people in emotional crisis are inspired by stories to see taking their own lives as a solution to their problems. As Time magazine wrote recently, “the more vivid the depiction of a death… the more it may contribute to suicide contagion.” Editors and producers are encouraged to avoid detailed descriptions of how victims of suicide did it, what their last note said, etc.
Reducing the suicide rate is a laudable goal. But journalists’ job is to report and analyze the news, not to reduce mortality. What’s next, refusing to mention hamburgers in the news because they contribute to arteriosclerosis? Cars because they kill people (and in vast numbers)? While we’re at it let’s censor war correspondence on the grounds that battle stories glorify militarism and thus prompt more wars!
Lying to readers is the worst sin a newspaper can commit. That includes lies of omission: readers pay for and have every right to expect the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from a product that promises exactly that. Playing cute by omitting important, relevant facts from the news, as in the Cobain story, seriously undermines the media’s credibility. That goes double when listeners and viewers know what really happened and realize they’re being treated like children by self-appointed nannies.
Moreover, self-censorship can destroy a story. Cobain’s death by suicide was a shocking where-were-you moment and a defining cultural experience for Generation X. I don’t see how Millennials could understand that from the NPR account. It wasn’t merely the fact that the lead singer of Nirvana had died. The way he died was central.
Another way the media loses credibility while trying to do the right thing is adhering to the widely accepted belief among corporate news outlets that they are somehow responsible for protecting national security. When the press receives classified government materials from a leaker or whistleblower they often contact the relevant agency to authenticate the documents and/or to allow them to suggest redactions. If you watched “The Post” you saw the Washington Post contact the Nixon Administration to give the White House a chance to argue why they shouldn’t publish the Pentagon Papers.
Media outlets like The Guardian and the New York Times shared the Edward Snowden files with the NSA and CIA so they could expunge information like the names of undercover intelligence operatives and suggest redactions. Even The Intercept (formerly a left-leaning media group) did this, to grievous effect: they foolishly shared leaked CIA documents with the feds, who used their analysis to track a whistleblower named Reality Winner. She is in prison.
During the Gulf War Geraldo Rivera got in trouble for drawing a map showing troop movements in the sand. The Pentagon threw him out of Iraq and many reporters agreed.
They were wrong. Journalists are not government employees. They’re solely responsible to news consumers, not the military or intelligence agencies who failed to safeguard their own secrets. Why shouldn’t a reporter report what they know, whatever they find out, whatever it is, if it’s news—no matter how sensitive? If the New York Times had gotten the D-Day plans a week ahead of time, they didn’t owe the War Department a phone call. They should have published, consequences be damned.
As the D-day example shows, respecting the public’s right to know is hard. Good people can die as a result. Wars may be lost. But for someone dedicated to journalism it’s an easy call. Either you’re a journalist or you’re nothing more than a low-rent liar and propagandist for the government.
Self-censorship often takes the form of policing newsworthy content for tastefulness. After Vice President Dick Cheney told a senator—on the floor of the senate!—to go have sex with himself, respectable media organizations dashed out the f— or otherwise danced around the nefarious fricative (as I am doing here because this column is syndicated). So dumb.
Everyone knows what Cheney said. No one could deny it was news. So print it.
Then there are the “tasteless” photos that are routinely withheld from printed pages and TV screens in the United States: sexual images like Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” and gruesome pictures of crime victims. America’s namby-pambyness is an outlier. In Latin America, photos of 9/11 jumpers ran on the front pages of major newspapers. But in the U.S., seventeen years later, the images are still scrubbed from public view. Even a sculpture based on those photos was removed from public viewing as too controversial.
It’s not like we don’t know these images exist. We saw them in live coverage on 9/11. Those who didn’t watch them then have heard about it. The media has decided that we’re too sensitive to see our own history. Even if you agree with their editorial decision, doesn’t it make you wonder what else they’re keeping from us?
Images of 9/11 jumpers underscored the horror of the day. Censorship doesn’t respect the dead. It whitewashes their agony.
The counterfactual argument, like airing ISIS snuff videos that might encourage the creation of more such imagery, is powerful. Even with such disgusting material, though, we should err on the side of the news and the public’s right to know. The alternative, the nanny media we have now, cannot be trusted and feeds into the demagogic framing of “fake news.”
(Ted Rall, the cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
They say that 10 million Americans seriously consider committing suicide every year. In 1984, when I was 20, I was one of them.
Most people who kill themselves feel hopeless. They are miserable and distraught and can’t imagine how or if their lives will ever improve. That’s how I felt. Within a few months I got expelled from college, dumped by a girlfriend I foolishly believed I would marry, fired from my job and evicted from my apartment. I was homeless, bereft, broke. I didn’t have enough money for more than a day of cheap food. And I had no prospects.
I tried in vain to summon up the guts to jump off the roof of my dorm. I went down to the subway but couldn’t make myself jump in front of a train. I wanted to. But I couldn’t.
Obviously things got better. I’m writing this.
Things got better because my luck changed. But — why did it have to? Isn’t there something wrong with a society in which life or death turns on luck?
I wish I could tell my 20-year-old self that suicide isn’t necessary, that there is another way, that there will be plenty of time to be dead in the end. I’ve seen those other ways when I’ve traveled overseas.
In Thailand and Central Asia and the Caribbean and all over the world you will find Americans whose American lives ran hard against the shoals of bankruptcy, lost love, addiction or social shame. Rather than off themselves, they gathered their last dollars and headed to the airport and went somewhere else to start over. They showed up at some dusty ex-pat bar in the middle of nowhere with few skills other than speaking English and asked if they could crash in the back room in between washing dishes. Eventually they scraped together enough money to conduct tours for Western tourists, maybe working as a divemaster or taking rich vacationers deep-sea fishing. They weren’t rich themselves; they were OK and that was more than enough.
You really can start over. But maybe not in this uptight, stuck-up, class-stratified country.
I remembered that in 2015 when I suffered another setback. Unbeknownst to me, the Los Angeles Times — where I had worked as a cartoonist since 2009 – had gotten itself into a corrupt business deal with the LAPD, which I routinely criticized in my cartoons. A piece-of-work police chief leveraged his department’s financial influence on the newspaper by demanding that the idiot ingénue publisher, his political ally, fire me as a favor. But mere firing wasn’t enough for these two goons. They published not one, but two articles, lying about me in an outrageous attempt to destroy my journalistic credibility. I’m suing but the court system is slower than molasses in the pre-climate change Arctic.
Suicide crossed my mind many times during those dark weeks and months. Although I had done nothing wrong the Times’ smears made me feel ashamed. I was angry: at the Times editors who should have quit rather than carry out such shameful orders, at the media outlets who refused to cover my story, at the friends and colleagues who didn’t support me. Though many people stood by me, I felt alone. I couldn’t imagine salvaging my reputation — as a journalist, your reputation for truthtelling and integrity are your most valuable asset and essential to do your job and to get new ones.
As my LA Times nightmare unfolded, however, I remembered the Texas-born bartender who had reinvented himself in Belize after his wife left him and a family court judge ordered him to pay 90% of his salary in alimony. I thought about the divemaster in Cozumel running away from legal trouble back in the States that he refused to describe. If my career were to crumble away, I could split.
You can opt out of BS without having to opt out of life.
Up 30% since 1999, suicide has become an accelerating national epidemic — 1.4 million Americans tried to kill themselves in a single year, 2015 — but the only times the media focuses on suicide is when it claims the lives of celebrities like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. While the media has made inroads by trying to cover high-profile suicides discreetly so as to minimize suicidal ideation and inspiring others to follow their example, it’s frustrating that no one seems to want to identify societal and political factors so that this trend might be reversed.
Experts believe that roughly half of men who commit suicide suffer from undiagnosed mental illness such as a severe personality disorder or clinical depression. Men commit suicide in substantially higher numbers than women. The healthcare insurance business isn’t much help. One in five Americans is mentally ill but 60% get no treatment at all.
Then there’s stress. Journalistic outlets and politicians don’t target the issue of stress in any meaningful way other than to foolishly, insipidly advise people to avoid it. If you subject millions of people to inordinate stress, some of them, the fragile ones, will take their own lives. We should be working to create a society that minimizes rather than increases stress.
It doesn’t require a lot of heavy lifting to come up with major sources of stress in American society. People are working longer hours but earning lower pay. Even people with jobs are terrified of getting laid off without a second’s notice. The American healthcare system, designed to fatten for-profit healthcare corporations, is a sick joke. When you lose your job or get sick, that shouldn’t be your problem alone. We’re social creatures. We must help each other personally, locally and through strong safety-net social programs.
Loneliness and isolation are likely leading causes of suicide; technology is alienating us from one another even from those who live in our own homes. This is a national emergency. We have to discuss it, then act.
Life in the United States has become vicious and brutal, too much to take even for this nation founded upon the individualistic principles of rugged libertarian pioneers. Children are pressured to exhibit fake joy and success on social media. Young adults are burdened with gigantic student loans they strongly suspect they will never be able to repay. The middle-aged are divorced, outsourced, downsized and repeatedly told they are no longer relevant. And the elderly are thrown away or warehoused, discarded and forgotten by the children they raised.
We don’t have to live this way. It’s a choice. Like the American ex-pats I run into overseas, American society can opt out of crazy-making capitalism without having to opt out.
Investigators are still putting together the pieces, but from what we know so far, it’s likely that 27-year-old German co-pilot Andreas Lubitz committed mass murder-suicide when he flew a Germanwings passenger jet carrying 149 passengers and fellow crewmen into the French Alps.
Authorities say they haven’t found a suicide note, but it’s a safe bet that Lubitz’s final act was prompted by depression (they found the meds), diminished vision, a deteriorating romantic relationship and his worry that the Lufthansa subsidiary would ground him if they found out about his problems, crashing a career he loved and blowing up his livelihood.
Though rare, pilot suicide isn’t unheard of. As long as the current system remains in place, it will happen again.
By “system,” I’m referring both to specific rules issued by the FAA and other countries’ aviation authorities to regulate pilots, and to that most coldhearted of socioeconomic systems, you’re-on-your-own capitalism.
“Before they are licensed, pilots must undergo a medical exam, conducted by a doctor trained and certified by the aviation agency,” explains The New York Times. Some airlines impose additional screening procedures, but they vary from company to company. Active pilots are required to have a medical screening once a year until they turn 40 and then twice a year after. Only when pilots are found to have mental health problems are they sent to a psychiatrist or psychologist for evaluation or treatment.”
At first glance, an incident like the Germanwings disaster seems to call for increased physical and mental monitoring. But leaning harder on pilots would only fix half the problem.
The current system is punitive – thus it encourages lying.
“But the system, Dr. [Warren] Silberman [a former manager of aerospace medical certification for the FAA] and others said, leaves pilots on an honor system, albeit one reinforced by penalties to discourage them from concealing any health issues that could affect their fitness to fly, including mental illness. Pilots who falsify information or lie about their health face fines that can reach $250,000, according to the FAA.”
Imagine yourself in that position. Knowing that public safety is at risk, you might do the right thing and step forward after your psychiatrist tells you that you shouldn’t be working, as happened to Lubitz. Then again, you might not.
First of all, you might doubt the diagnosis. That’s the thing about mental illness – victims’ judgment can be impaired. For example, there is evidence that Ronald Reagan suffered from early signs of dementia while serving as president. If true, that’s scary – but was the Gipper aware he was fading?
Second, you might think you could handle it, that with the help of psychiatric treatment and antidepressant medications, you could push through what might turn out to be a temporary crisis. Why risk everything over a passing phase?
Third, and this is likely, you might keep your problems to yourself because to do otherwise would ruin your life – or at least feel like it. At bare minimum, it would end your career, forcing you to start from zero. For many people, that seems too horrible to bear. In our society, social status is determined by our careers.
“The stigma [of having a mental illness] is enormous,” Dr. William Hurt Sledge, professor of psychiatry at Yale who has consulted for the FAA, the Air Line Pilots Association and major airlines, told the Times. “And of course, none of them wants that to be known, nor do they want to confess it or believe that they have it.”
And for those who decide to ignore the stigma, what comes next? Where’s the safety net, professional, social and economic, for people who run into trouble, whether of their own making or not?
At the root of Lubitz’s decision to kill himself – whether he gave much thought to the 149 people on the other side of the reinforced cockpit door cannot be known – is that he lived, as we all do in the Western world, in a disposable society. Lose what you do and you lose what you are. The bills keep coming long after the paychecks stop; soon you have nothing left.
I could throw a dart at any daily newspaper to illustrate this point; today it would probably land on the results of an AARP survey that found – unsurprisingly to anyone over age 50 – that a single layoff after that age has devastating, long-term consequences. People over 50 are overwhelmingly more likely to wind up classified among the long-term unemployed and typically wind up earning less if and when they find a new job, often starting again from scratch in a new industry because their experience was in a line of work that no longer has openings.
I imagine a system in which people like Andreas Lubitz don’t need to see a psychological or other setback as the end of their world.
What if he could have confided in his bosses without fear? What if Lufthansa policy was to stand by him through his treatment, guaranteeing him a respectable job at equivalent salary – for as long as it took for him to get better? And if he couldn’t recover, what if he knew that his country’s government would provide for him financially and otherwise? Finally, what if no one cared what he did for a living, and it was just as prestigious and remunerative to work as a file clerk as to fly a plane?
I’m not sure, but I bet 150 people would be alive today.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM
STILL NO NATIONAL HEALTHCARE FOR MENTAL ILLNESS? THAT’S CRAZY
BY TED RALL
RELEASE: WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2014
The sister of the 28-year-old man who shot his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore the same morning he killed two New York police officers as they sat in their patrol car in Brooklyn said her brother had long suffered from mental illness, but hadn’t received treatment.
“He was an emotionally troubled young man, and he was suicidal,” said Jalaa’i Brinsley. “Clearly something’s wrong. He should have been offered help in the system, right? But he wasn’t.”
Indeed. Something is very wrong.
In the United States, psychiatric care is a luxury that, at $150 an hour and up for counseling that can last for months or even years, only the very wealthiest citizens can afford.
This latest sorry episode serves as yet another reminder that ours remains a country in its infancy when it comes to health care, despite the undeniable turning point marked by last year’s enactment of the Affordable Care Act. As many as one out of four Americans suffer mental health issues in any given year, yet even upper-middle-class “white-collar” workers with relatively high-end health insurance plans receive little coverage for mental illness. The same goes for dental and vision care.
You know the narrative by now: after a particularly heinous shooting or mass shooting, typically ending with the suicide or death-by-cop of the suspect, relatives of the murderer emerge to express their sorrow and anger that they had repeatedly sought help but had been consistently rejected, usually due to their inability to afford expensive treatment and medications for mental illness. For the most part, however, news coverage and political debate emphasizes helplessness – who can predict who will go crazy? – and America’s easy access to high-powered weapons. Sure, there is a flutter of discussion of the fact that few Americans have access to care for mental illness, but those stories are inevitably overshadowed by the gun control and the “culture of violence” chatter.
Talk about crazy!
As the bodies of the victims – which, if you are fair-minded, must include the killers along with the killed – go cold in their graves, the media and thus the population at large move on, the system putters on the same as always, denying countless millions access to the mental health professionals this country can easily afford to pay on their behalf, and setting the stage for some tiny fraction of them to go haywire and commit the headline-grabbing mass murders of the future.
Two years ago, after Adam Lanza slaughtered 20 children and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killed his mother and himself, some public officials declared that it was time to get serious about mental illness. According to a report by the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate, Lanza had never received treatment for years of mental illness, including anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
But, as USA Today reports, “the drive for change has [since] slowed at the state level and ground almost to a halt in Washington…Only 29 states increased funding this year, however. Seven states reduced mental health spending. In some states, mental health funding is still less than it was before the [2008-10] recession.”
“We’re seeing less attention to mental health, and that’s concerning to us, because we’re still seeing so many tragedies every day,” Mary Giliberti of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) told the paper. Although individual tragedies may not make the news, she said, “the suffering is tremendous when people don’t get the services they need. People end up in emergency rooms. People end up in jails and prisons, which is absolutely the wrong place for someone with mental illness.”
Mental illness is one of America’s biggest hidden scourges.
According to NAMI, 1 in 17 adults − about 13.6 million Americans – suffer from a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.
46% of homeless Americans in shelters suffer from serious mental illness and/or substance abuse.
20% of prisoners in state and local prisons have a recent history of mental health problems.
70% of children in juvenile prisons have a mental health condition.
People need help, but they’re not getting it. 60% of adults with mental illness received no treatment within the last year.
Mental health treatment is expensive — but so is ignoring the problem. “Serious mental illness cost the economy $193.2 billion in lost earnings each year,” according to NAMI. Think of all the wars we could fight with the taxes from those lost salaries! Or don’t: 22 veterans commit suicide daily.
This year is a perfect example of the system’s inability and/or unwillingness to respond to the mental health crisis. Even after actor-comedian Robin Williams succumbed to suicide after years of alcoholism and depression, and a severely depressed 22-year-old man killed six people and then himself at the University of California at Santa Barbara, you couldn’t even find a single liberal Democrat in either the House of Representatives or the Senate to propose a bill that would expand the ACA to include comprehensive coverage for mental illness.
Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger’s “parents repeatedly attempted to get psychiatric help for their son. By his own account, he was prescribed antipsychotic medication but refused to take it,” CBS News reported at the time.
There is a strong argument to be made in favor of restricting access to the highest powered automatic weapons, as well as philosophical interest in debating the nature of good and evil, but if we as a country truly want to reduce the frequency and severity of shootings in our public spaces, we should start by throwing some serious money at psychologists and psychiatrists.
“About half of these mass killings are being done by people with severe mental illness, mostly schizophrenia,” Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a leading expert on severe mental illness told “60 Minutes” in 2013. “And if they were being treated, they would’ve been preventable.”
So it wasn’t just “evil,” or random criminality, that killed those two NYPD officers last weekend.
It was us.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM
As I waited for the body of a man who jumped in front of my train to be cleared from the tracks — less than a week before another train I was riding struck a suicide victim — it occurred to me that (a) I should check whether suicide rates are increasing due to the bad economy (they are, especially among men in their 50s), and that (b) talking about suicide is long overdue.
With modernity comes depression; depression sometimes leads to suicide. And it’s a global phenomenon. “The World Health Organization reports that suicide rates have increased 60 percent over the past 50 years, most strikingly in the developing world, and that by 2020 depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world,” T.M. Luhrmann wrote in The New York Times recently.
Why are so many people opting out?
Can we eliminate or reduce the number of our brothers and sisters who kill themselves?
Disclosure: my best friend committed suicide when we were 15. Bill’s death, and his inability/unwillingness to find a reason to keep living among his friends and family, left me angry and confused, unable to process an unsolvable equation. No day passes without me thinking about Bill hanging himself. His death makes me question my own daily decisions to go on living. I am not in touch with anyone else who knew him, but I imagine their trauma was not wildly dissimilar from mine.
So, yeah, it’s a personal issue for me. Given that 30,000 Americans commit suicide and 800,000 attempt it every year, it’s personal for 5,000,000 survivors of close friends and relatives too.
Nobody talks about it, but suicide is a national epidemic. Suicide by gun kills more Americans — a lot more Americans — than gun violence committed against others. (Though research shows that having a gun in your house greatly increases the chance that you’ll shoot yourself.) More American soldiers have killed themselves than have died in the war against Afghanistan.
Perhaps public discussion is inhibited by the cultural myth of the rugged individual, personal responsibility, etc. — hey, it’s your choice to live or die — but we’re all in this together. We need to save as many people as we can.
One way to reduce the suicide rate would be to get rid of capitalism. Though not a truly communist state, citizens of the Soviet Union were far less likely to kill themselves before the collapse of socialism in 1991.
There is a relentless tendency toward monopoly, consolidation of wealth and rising inequality under capitalism. Inequality — specifically, awareness of inequality — kills.
Studies show that relative poverty — how much poorer you are than your societal peers — is strongly correlated to mental illness, including depression. Of course, you can find a study to support just about anything; there’s even a theory that country music prompts people to kill themselves. Still, as Lurhmann says: “We know that social position affects both when you die and how sick you get: The higher your social position, the healthier you are. It turns out that your sense of relative social rank — literally, where you draw a line on an abstract ladder to show where you are with respect to others — predicts many health outcomes, including depression, sometimes even more powerfully than your objective socioeconomic status alone.”
Being poor doesn’t bum people out. Being poorer than other people — people whose relative wealth you personally witness — does. Mali, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are poor countries. Yet their rates of inequality are low, similar to those of Germany and the Scandinavian countries. And so are their suicide rates.
“Overall life expectancy also tracks with inequality, with a bigger wage gap meaning shorter lives and worse health — for both rich and poor, though the poor are hit much harder,” Maia Szalavitz wrote in a much-cited 2011 Time magazine article. “Researchers suspect that this gradient is linked to stress caused by our place in the social hierarchy: Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, for example, has found that even in baboons, lower ranked animals have higher levels of stress hormones and worse health. But when status conflicts are reduced, producing a more egalitarian situation, these differences are also reduced.”
In a famous 2003 experiment with monkeys, the animals refused to accept small food allotments than those offered to neighboring monkeys. They became angry at the researchers, throwing objects at them — apparently because they blamed them for unequal distribution of the treats.
Those monkeys were on to something. Better to turn our rage against those responsible for inequality than against ourselves.
(Support independent journalism and political commentary. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM
I draw cartoons for The Los Angeles Times about issues related to California and the Southland (metro Los Angeles).
According to a new poll, “Californians’ perceptions about living in the Golden State are fractured along political, geographic and generational boundaries.”
Is California one of the best places to live? 53% of Democrats say yes. Only 26% of Republicans do.
Even if you’re liberal, the knowledge that conservatives are bummed out about living in the same state that you consider paradise has to give you pause. After all, you’re liberal. You’re supposed to care about other people — especially other people who tell you that they don’t care about you.
Also, you might ask yourself: what if I’m wrong and they’re right? What if California really is hell on earth? Does that make me…crazy?
What I want to know, and the poll does not and cannot reveal, is why members of the two major parties view the state’s quality of life so differently. Is it political — are Republifornians chafing under Governor Jerry and a Sacramento dominated by his Dems? Or does it reflect different worldviews? When Republicans look at the sky, do they see a different hue? When they hear the words “Miley Cyrus,” do their hearts quiver at an alternate frequency?
What about third parties? How do Greens and Libertarians enjoy/hate living here?
Anyway, this cartoon falls into the “illustrative” category of the political toon genre — a piece that doesn’t take an editorial stance, but rather shows what’s going on for its own sake. I have often been critical of this type of cartooning, but I make exceptions (hey, to be human is to be a hypocrite) for cartoons that highlight minor blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stories that have, or may have, broad implications.
Which this one is.
Now that you know that right-wingers dislike living in California, maybe you should consider being nicer to the dude in the monster truck-sized SUV who cuts you off if it has a Tea Party bumper sticker. Chances are, he’s depressed enough us as it is without you honking at him.
Also, he’s more likely to be armed.
Time to Roll Back Excessive Prison Sentences
If you’re looking for sympathy, it helps to be white, male and media-savvy. Throw in charm and brains—especially if your smarts tend toward the tech geek variety—and your online petitions will soon collect more petitions than campaigns against kitten cancer.
These advantages weren’t enough to save Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old “technology wunderkind” who hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment on January 11. But they did elevate his suicide from that of a mere “data crusader,” as The New York Times put it, to “a cause” driven by millennial “information wants to be free” bloggers and sympathetic writers (whose corporate media overlords would go broke if people like Swartz got their way).
Swartz, who helped invent RSS feeds as a teenager and cofounded the link-posting social networking site Reddit, was a militant believer in online libertarianism, the idea that everything—data, cultural products like books and movies, news—ought to be available online for free. Sometimes he hacked into databases of copyrighted material—to make a point, not a profit. Though Swartz reportedly battled depression, the trigger that pushed him to string himself up was apparently his 2011 arrest for breaking into M.I.T.’s computer system.
Swartz set up a laptop in a utility closet and downloaded 4.8 million scholarly papers from a database called JSTOR. He intended to post them online to protest the service’s 10 cent per page fee because he felt knowledge should be available to everyone. For free.
JSTOR declined to prosecute, but M.I.T. was weasely, so a federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz of Boston, filed charges. “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away,” she told the media at the time.
Basically, I agree. As someone who earns a living by selling rights to reprint copyrighted intellectual property, I’ve seen the move from print to digital slash my income while disseminating my work more widely than ever. Info wants to be free is fine in theory, but then who pays writers, cartoonists, authors and musicians?
I also have a problem with the selective sympathy at play here. Where are the outraged blog posts and front-page New York Times pieces personalizing the deaths of Pakistanis murdered by U.S. drone strikes? Where’s the soul-searching and calls for payback against the officials who keep 166 innocent men locked up in Guantánamo? What if Swartz were black and rude and stealing digitized movies?
But what matters is the big picture. There is no doubt that, in the broader sense, Swartz’s suicide was, in his family’s words, “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach”—a system that ought to be changed for everyone, not just loveable Ivy League nerds.
Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines. The charges were wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer.
Thirty-five years! For stealing data!
The average rapist serves between five and six years.
The average first-degree murderer does 16.
And no one seriously thinks Swartz was trying to make money—as in, you know, commit fraud.
No wonder people are comparing DA Ortiz to Javert, the heartless and relentless prosecutor in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.”
As Swartz’s lawyer no doubt told him, larding on charges is standard prosecutorial practice in everything from traffic stops to genocide. The idea is to give the DA some items to give away during plea negotiations. For defendants, however, this practice amounts to legal state terrorism. It can push psychologically delicate souls like Swartz over the edge. It should stop.
It also undermines respect for the law. As a young man I got arrested (and, thanks to a canny street lawyer, off the hook) for, essentially, riding in the same car as a pothead. Among the charges: “Not driving with a valid Massachusetts drivers license.” (Mine was from New York.) “Don’t worry,” the cop helpfully informed me, “they’ll drop that.” So why put it on? Neither the legalistic BS nor the missing cash from my wallet when I got out of jail increased my admiration for this morally bankrupt system.
The really big issue, however, is sentencing. The Times’ Noam Cohen says “perhaps a punishment for trespassing would have been warranted.” Whatever the charge, no one should go to prison for any crime that causes no physical harm to a human being or animal.
Something about computer hackers makes courts go nuts. The U.S. leader of the LulzSec hacking group was threatened with a 124-year sentence. No doubt, “Hollywood Hacker” Christopher Chaney, who hacked into the email accounts of Scarlett Johansson and Christina Aguilera and stole nude photos of the stars so he could post them online, is a creep. Big time. But 10 years in prison, as a federal judge in Los Angeles sentenced him? Insanely excessive. Community service, sure. A fine, no problem. Parole restrictions, on his Internet use for example, make sense.
Sentences issued by American courts are wayyyy too long, which is why the U.S. has more people behind bars in toto and per capita than any other country. Even the toughest tough-on-crime SOB would shake his head at the 45-year sentence handed to a purse snatcher in Texas last year. But even “typical” sentences are excessive.
I won’t deny feeling relieved when the burglar who broke into my Manhattan apartment went away for eight years—it wasn’t his first time at the rodeo—but if you think about it objectively, it’s a ridiculous sentence. A month or two is plenty long. (Ask anyone who has done time.)
You know what would make me feel safe? A rehabilitation program that educated and provided jobs for guys like my burglar. Whether his term was too long or just right, those eight years came to an end—and he wound up back on the street, less employable and more corrupted than before. And don’t get me started about prison conditions.
A serious national discussion about out-of-control prosecutors and crazy long sentences is long overdue. I hope Aaron Swartz’s death marks a turning point.
COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL