Does suicide have a hierarchy of tragedy?
Aaron Swartz' suicide has produced an outpouring of grief and anger from many quarters. The disproportionate nature of the charges filed against him produced a lot of Who Breaks a Butterfly Upon a Wheel? commentary. His accomplishments have been widely celebrated, and the tragedy of a life with so much promise cut short has been deeply mourned.
This mass show of empathy is good. It's good that people cared enough about him to give voice to their feelings and in some cases act on them. Something about all the commentary nagged at me almost from the start, though, and a couple days ago I figured out what it was. We are in the midst of a suicide epidemic among service members, yet that is mostly treated as a statistic. What differences are there between those suicides and Swartz', though? Young lives of promise cut short? Check. Government involvement in the deaths? Probably more so with the military deaths than with Swartz. The heaping of psychological burdens on fragile psyches? You tell me.
No matter what angle I try to get at it, the only differences I can come with are this: Swartz made significant contributions in an area (Internet technology) that gets a great deal attention, and he was freinds with lots of people with high profile platforms. Swartz was an iconoclast and a polymath. His work on Creative Commons is in wide use, Reddit is a hugely popular platform, and so on. He also was friends with many of the most notable people in both the tech and academic communities. His accomplishments were therefore well amplified.
I understand that the death of famous people attracts more attention. An ex-president who dies gets more coverage than the death of an anonymous laborer. That distance doesn't seem nearly so great in the case of Swartz and the military suicides, though - particulalry because the political overtones of Swartz' suicide have been so heavily emphasized. Why the energetic activism for the former and the fatalism for the latter? Does it really make that much of a difference if you invented RSS or knew faculty at MIT? What is it that produces incansescent outrage for one and a resigned sigh for others?