Writing in Rolling Stone last May, Rick Perlstein highlighted a disturbing pattern in which federal authorities devote disproportionately more attention to targeting activists, anarchists and Muslims than they do other groups such as white supremacist militias. “The State is singling out ideological enemies,” wrote Perlstein, noting how FBI sting operations regularly focused on entrapping activists and anarchists (like the eight Cleveland anarchists last year who were “unable to terrorize their way out of a paper bag” but were guided into a bomb plot by an undercover agent) rather than racist far-right militias deemed currently to be the greatest homegrown terror threat.
Swartz, as I’ve noted, was no anarchist. But his brand of activism — including the sharing of academic articles — fell within the purview of behaviors deemed threatening to the government. Critics of the Massachusetts U.S. attorney who have stressed that Swartz’s alleged crimes had no victims forget that the government has a strong history in doling out harsh punishments when property — intellectual or material — is involved. In all their years of activism, particularly concentrated in the 1990s, the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front never injured one human or animal and took pains to ensure this was the case. Nonetheless, acts of property damage alone led then-FBI director Robert Mueller in 2006 to call these environmental activists one of the agency’s “highest domestic terrorism priorities.” The recent revelation of extensive FBI surveillance of Occupy activity aligns with this pattern.
A petition on the White House website for President Obama to remove Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz (Heymann’s superior) over her office’s treatment of Swartz has garnered more than 29,000 online signatures — 25,000 are needed to require a response from the administration. The desire for retribution over the witch hunt directed at a thoughtful, brilliant, passionate young man is understandable. Whether Ortiz, Heymann and others involved deserve punishment or removal is one thing — perhaps they do. But even if they are ousted, our federal justice system will remain structured around prosecutorial control, secrecy and a troubling ideological bent against the ideas for which Swartz fought.