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Does suicide have a hierarchy of tragedy?

danps's picture

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?

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Cujo359's picture
Submitted by Cujo359 on

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.

The things you mention, plus:

- the military suicide rate has been an issue for quite some time, whereas Swartz' suicide, at least, is a recent event

- people in the military are expected to risk their lives

- Swartz' suicide appears to have a couple of easily-demonized causes, where the military suicides are at least partly a result of our incessant wars and the stress they put on military personnel. The latter thing, I think, represents our failure as a society to do the right thing.

danps's picture
Submitted by danps on

In order:

  • I would think its continuation is a reason to make it more of an issue, not less of one. I don't understand the reasoning that hey, it's old news, why dwell on it.
  • Accepting that risk shouldn't mean they can be treated in any way the military sees fit.
  • There are pretty clear reasons why the suicides are happening, two of the biggest being extended deployments and the lack of mental health care for veterans. Why is that not as easily demonized as overzealous prosecution?

On that last one, even if the causes were complicated, don't you think it's worth spending the time figuring it out? At what level of suicides do you finally think it's worth spending some effort on?

Cujo359's picture
Submitted by Cujo359 on

In order:

- Then you'd be wrong. News organizations seldom go back and look at something that's been going on for a while now. How many reports do you see from Afghanistan in a typical day?

- No, it shouldn't, but soldiers are killed in wars, and die afterwards for various reasons, at rates young men (and now women) do not typically die.

- Yes, and those reasons boil down to too much war. I can name who the three most responsible people are for the Swartz prosecution, and give you an approximate idea why. There were a small number of people involved in that decision, even if you include the folks from MIT and JSON (sp?) who filed complaints against him. What's more, Swartz was being prosecuted for something he clearly didn't profit from, and for basically making work that the taxpayers paid for available for them.

Now, who is responsible for us being in Iraq and Afghanistan? You can point fingers, but in the end, a President and his people got us into them, Congress let him, and the American public overwhelmingly agreed with that decision at the time. Yes, it was stupid, and yes, it was based on lies obtained at least partly due to torture, but another President let that all pass, and neither Congress nor folks generally seem too upset with all that.

On that last one, the causes aren't complicated. They're simple. We as a people don't want to face them. As for the rest, I was writing about this issue years ago. It is neither new to me nor OK. If you want more reason why, check my bio at that link. I lived with it professionally for years. That doesn't mean I kid myself about why it's happening.

danps's picture
Submitted by danps on
  • The point I was making wasn't "why isn't the media covering this more?" it was "why aren't people as outraged about this?" Don't shift the frame like that. I wasn't referring to the media in the anger over Swartz' death, and I'm not talking about it with respect to military suicides.
  • Your fatalism on the sharp rise in suiacides is really hard to understand. It's as though once someone signs up for the military, they're fair game and who cares what happens to them afterwards. The rise in military suicides is new and very real. I think that increase is a scandal and an issue that urgently needs to be addressed. Writing it off with a que sera, sera seems really callous to me.
  • Once again, your reasoning basically boils down to, it's complicated - and since it's complicated we have no obligation to try to understand it. Thousands of soldiers have killed themselves. We have to try to figure that out, even if it's hard. Those thousands of deaths deserve to be understood every bit as much as Swartz'. (And by the way, I don't think the soldiers are profiting from the war, unless you think their paychecks are allowing them to accumulate fabulous wealth.)

Saying that successive presidents have created this situation with the acquiescence of Congress and the American people again elides the issue. I'm talking about the activists who are making so much noise about Swartz' suicide being contributed to by government interference. I don't expect Congress or the majority of the American people to get deeply involved in Swartz' case either. My point was addressed to those making a lot of noise about Swartz (and those supporting them). My post wasn't meant to be an all-encompassing address to the media, Congress and the citizenry. It was directed to those engaged in activism re: Swartz.

Your bio is irrelevant to this discussion. We're debating positions on an issue, not having a résumé-measuring contest.

Submitted by lambert on

... and not totally wired in uber-hip Brooklynites with a huge media presence (who are also very much in "out of sight, out of mind" mode so far as the wars, plural are concerned).

Not to take away from Swartz's huge achievements in too short a life, but those are his cultural and (political) class markers. It's good that the rising tide is lapping at these people's toes...

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win. -- Mahatma Gandhi

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

I am coming to another view. In a society where suicide rates have risen so dramatically, it was just a question of time before one of these suicides caught the popular imagination. Because Swartz was famous online, it was natural that outrage should have overwhelmed the usual media blackout on these things.