In an interview, Pres. Obama said that he would have to think long and hard before he sent a son off to play football because of the high risk of head injuries. Which prompts the question: would Obama let his son go to war? Now that his girls could become combat troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, in just three years, the question is no longer academic.
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
Report after report about U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan quote government reports that state that “suspected militants” have been killed. Suspected of what? By whom? No one knows and no one cares. Meanwhile, there is one drone strike every four days.
More Jobs for Our Valiant Marine Heroes
“Eighteen, 19-year-old kids make stupid mistakes all too often and that’s what occurred here.”
This was the nuanced reaction of Rick Perry, governor of the supposedly important state of Texas, who has signed dozens of death warrants (at least one for an innocent man), who thinks he deserves to be president, to a video of Marines in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan peeing on dead Afghan resistance fighters.
“Golden, like a shower,” says one.
Amazing to watch how ten years and the catastrophic American military defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed our views about the shock troops of American militarism. After 9/11 our sainted soldiers could do no wrong. They were inherently noble. They were heroes. Even liberals said so.
Uneducated and ignorant, yes, but these brave young men and women deserved our gratitude for defending our freedoms against the Islamofascist hordes lest a land bridge somehow appear between the Old and New Worlds. Who cared 85 percent of U.S. troops in Iraq told a 2006 Zogby poll that their mission was “to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9/11 attacks”?
They had big hearts. And small brains. The rapists of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, the murderers of Bagram, the rapist-murderers of Haditha? Just a few bad apples.
No longer. Defeat has followed defeat. Each “successful” drone strike against “enemy militants” in Afghanistan and Pakistan gets followed by a sheepish “well, yeah, they were all innocent women and children” press release. War grates on the nerves; losing wars are worse. Why, broke and jobless Americans, are we still spending $1 million a year per soldier to chase down one Al Qaeda #2 after another?
America’s glorious crusade is over. We know the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is to subjugate, terrorize and brutalize the local population. Even state-controlled media admits it.
“There is no question that the Taliban are brutal, including against their own people,” opines The New York Times editorial board. “The 1,000-man battalion lost seven men during its seven months in Helmand. But the stress of combat cannot excuse desecrating corpses—not to mention filming it.”
Love that last emphasis.
How many zillions of times have similar or worse outrages been carried out by soldiers smart enough to keep their camera cellphones in their pockets?
Not to mention the disproportionality. It sucks to lose seven people. Especially if you’re one of them. How many Afghans did that unit kill during those same seven months? They killed four—the ones they peed on—in a single day. As for Taliban brutality—well, they are Afghans. What are we doing over in their country?
Memo to U.S. forces: OK to invade foreign nation that posed no threat. OK to occupy said country for years. OK to impose a corrupt puppet government. OK to kill the locals. Probably OK to piss on them. Just don’t film it.
Of all the many stupid things Rick Perry has said during his political career his defense of the piss-and-vinegar marines rank among one of the smartest. Perry is right: they are dumb kids.
Which prompts a Big Question. We don’t trust kids to drink. Hell, you can’t even rent a car until you’re 25. So why do we outfit a bunch of dumb 18- and 19-year-old kids prone to making “stupid mistakes all too often” with high-powered automatic weapons, then unleash them with a license to kill hapless foreigners?
Thanks to Rick Perry, the answer is clear:
War crimes is just what dumb kids does. No one’s fault. Just is.
This blame-the-brats approach has a lot of potential for America’s hapless ruling class. Like, get rid of the weird cabals of angry old country-club neo-cons. The next time we want to gin up a quagmire from thin air, let’s assign the job of choosing the target and marketing the war to a bunch of dumb 18- and 19-year-olds from West Virginia. Whatever goes wrong won’t be anyone’s actual fault.
Plausible excusability—they’re just dumb kids!—works for domestic policy too.
Whenever the government is in the mood to shovel hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars into the coffers of giant banks while ignoring the plight of the un- and underemployed, keep the gray old men of the Fed out of it. Roll a few kegs over to the nearest frat and let the freshman and sophomore econ majors have at it. So the global economy tanks. Who cares? Just a buncha stupid kids doing stupid kid stuff.
Don’t blame me if this column is stupid. I took the week off.
COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL