by Redwhitenblack, TC|TW editor
Back in January my circle of friends and acquaintances was shaken to the core when a young activist and tech innovator named Aaron Swartz* committed suicide. Apparently the US Justice Department decided to throw the book at Aaron for a crime of curiosity - sneaking into a broom closet at MIT to set up a laptop to download scholarly articles from the J-Stor catalogue. Although he repeatedly maintained that he had no intent to distribute the articles the feds didn't see it that way. He was looking at possibly 30 years in prison. The crime could almost be considered a prank, an act of rebellion against the system of internet pay-walls and information controls that in their own ways keep us from being free. Aaron was an early developer of the RSS web-publishing protocol and one of the fiercest opponents of the proposed SOPA legislation that would have killed internet freedom as we know it. As of right now Google is divesting from its RSS operations to concentrate on social networking and mind control. SOPA and a dozen other net freedom bills are being bandied around the Congress. And hundreds or maybe thousands of the most dedicated activists in the country are still struggling to accept the fact that Aaron won't be with them to stand against any of it. He is sorely missed.
I never met Aaron. We had a few mutual friends but I never actually got to meet him. He slept on their couches. He helped them set up their blogs. He haunted campus libraries with them, picked their brains about whatever he happened to be reading at the moment, and he got over-caffeinated and stoked the fires of curiosity within everyone he knew. We probably would have had a good bit to talk about. I am a blogger and an RSS fanatic. If nothing else I would have liked to say, "Thank you". But I never got to meet him so I give a poor eulogy. Thoughts and remembrances offered by his friends and by his family are more compelling.
This past week I learned of an activist of a different sort, a paralyzed Iraq veteran named Tomas Young. I first learned about him from a fellow blogger screaming into the darkness over at Taliban Lollipops (which you really should visit right after reading this article because it's excellent). It's been reported that Tomas plans to commit suicide in April. I've seen his story everywhere, my mother even emailed it to me. I don't have this information first hand so I will reproduce the report from Gawker:
Since sustaining his initial injury, Young, who is now 33, has been one of the most vocal members of the activist group Iraq Veterans Against the War, even starring in the award-winning documentary Body of War, which followed him as he attempted to make sense of his circumstances. Unfortunately, Young has also been forced to watch as his body and abilities have slowly withered away, a cruel counterweight to his once boundless enthusiasm. At first he was only paralyzed from the waist down, but in 2008 his condition worsened when he suffered a pulmonary embolism and anoxic brain injury, ailments that further hampered his mobility and his speech. It's been downhill from there. In November, Young had his colon removed, and his wife, Claudia Cuellar, now feeds her husband liquid food through a tube.
After nine years in and out of hospitals, Young, who lives in Kansas City, told the Kansas City Star this week that he's decided to end his life, saying simply, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." After trying to help him live for almost a decade, doctors have told Young they can't help him with his final wish. So sometime in the next few weeks he will start to refuse food, water, and medication. He told the Star he thinks it will only take about three days for him to die after that.
It may be naive of me but I actually hope that these reports are wrong. You may have seen the pictures of Tomas looking bearded and despondent circulating the internet accompanied by his last letter to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, but that's not him. I'm almost certain that's what his friends and family would say. That's not how they'll remember him.
Body of War, the documentary of which Tomas is the primary subject, is a miracle of a film. It intersperses footage of Tomas adjusting to life, navigating a Kafka-esque Veteran's Administration, and speaking out against the war(s) with footage of senators and representatives in the run-up to the Iraq war. I've seen Hubris. I've seen The Hurt Locker and Apocalypse Now, and The Fog of War and dozens of other magnificent exposes, documentaries and explorations of what war has done to mankind. But if I had to choose just one of these films to show to a class of high school sophomores, it would be Body of War. I won't provide the link, but the entire film is available on YouTube right now as a playlist in 9 parts. Please go watch it.
There are so many things I wish I had said to Aaron and wish I could say to Tomas. They probably wouldn't matter. I'm just a blogger, which is to say a guy who writes too little and reads too much. But my heart is breaking for these guys today. I don't know what kind of pain they face and I make no judgements on their decisions. When I make comments on this blog you might notice that my avatar is an homage to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and professional pain in Richard Nixon's ass) who himself was an outspoken critic of, well damn near everything, and himself took the reins on when he would leave this world. To this day Dr. Thompson's ex-wife maintains that she never saw him happier than on the chosen day. I wouldn't begrudge anyone that.
But my heart still breaks. I'll never get to see these guys on the front lines of the movements where people are giving their everything just to make this world a livable place. Because it isn't right now and they know it. It's been said, "the only way to live with any dignity in this world today is to struggle". And like the speaker I wish that it were unnecessary. But it is necessary. It's vital, it's critical, it's really the only chance we have. I wish that Aaron had chosen to struggle on a little longer. I wish that Tomas could see fit to stick around with us just a little longer even through the morphine, the resentment, and the agony.
When I look at what's going on in the world today - and really, what's always been going on in the world - I see the greed, the arrogance, the cruelty of it. I see the men of extraordinary wealth and privilege placed in positions of power making decisions so selfish, so brutal that no ordinary human could fathom them. I get that. I know a lot of people who feel that the "system" can't be beaten, that it will just chew us all up collectively or one by one whenever it so chooses. But I also happen to believe the wealthy and the wicked don't have it made quite so much as many of us down here in the dirt would think. First, because they must contend with one another for power. But also, and this is what gets me up in the morning, because they don't control everything. All the banks, and the corrupt politicians, and the warlords, etc., etc., they don't control everything, not completely. And that fact tortures them. It keeps them awake some nights. They cannot seem to get a handle on that one last thing that they are completely unable to control - and that one thing is stubborn, vocal, selfless sons-of-bitches like us.
Tomas says that he's not religious, he's not a believer. I am. That's primarily because the more I learn about how this world truly operates the more I realize there's not much chance for any of us without the help of a loving and just God. But I also believe there's something better for us on the other side of this madness. Yes, I believe in heaven. I just wish we weren't in such a hurry for it. This is an ages long battle for the simple ability to live on this world with the slightest modicum of dignity. People are protesting, and writing, and praying, and organizing, and fighting tooth and nail just for the simple ability to live on this earth and breathe clean air, grow good food, get an education and not be murdered in an act of war or be forced to murder another in the same manner. It's a very long game and our strongest pieces keep taking themselves off the board.
So, I will just say to Tomas what I did not get to say to Aaron. Thank you. Thank you for your service, in uniform and after. Thank you for offering your body as evidence of the cruelty of war. Thank you for being funny, and thank you for being fierce and thank you for being willing to travel around the country telling the same story over and over again because so many people needed to hear it.
It just would've been nice to hear you tell it in person.
*Correction note - Aaron Swartz's name was misspelled when this post was first published. My apologies if anyone was offended by the oversight and I regret the error.
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