I was ready to go to his funeral this morning. It was in the Chicago suburbs. I had no intention of actually attending the funeral, but I was absolutely prepared to join the human shield between those who cared about him and the Westboro Baptist Church. He was bullied enough while he was alive, his family didn’t need to endure more after his death.
Fortunately, the WBC thought they shouldn’t instigate Anonymous right now for whatever reason. They decided not to go, and so did I. I didn’t know Aaron personally, I only knew of him, and in a way I’m glad – because right now I’m thinking about all of it abstractly instead of mourning a person.
I was in high school in the late 90s, in the middle of Iowa. The internet was common enough by then that the school had it, and it was in the homes of early adopting mainstream users, but it was still thought of as something that could go rouge and destroy us all at any time. My dad worked at John Deere and Apple had secured a contract with the company early on. Because of that we had a Mac LCII at home, and my high school had Macs as well. I was in the gifted program (and therefore viewed with extra scrutiny by many of the school’s teachers) and our room had a computer in it. One morning, before school started, it was being fritzy. I knew the problem and so I decided to fix it before school that morning. I grabbed a 3.5 inch floppy and took it to the nearest working computer (in the Journalism room) and copied their system software onto it. Oh yes, the entire system on a 3.5 inch floppy. I took the disk back to the first computer, re-installed the system and it was working again by the time I had to go to first period.
Part way through 1st period I was called to the principal’s office. I wasn’t that kind of kid. I made trouble, sure, but I never got caught. A few minutes later I was in the office with the principal and the journalism teacher. I was being accused of stealing the system software from the journalism computer. I had only made the fix in the first place so that no one was inconvenienced and they didn’t have to send in a tech, and it was definitely a fix I had made before. I asked her what was wrong with the journalism computer. She stared at me blankly. I asked if it was still working. She said she didn’t know, and that I should at least get detention, but probably a suspension. Lucky for me, the principal wasn’t an idiot and said that if the computer was broken he would make sure I experienced consequences. She wasn’t satisfied, but as I’m sure you’ve guessed, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the journalism computer. At all. By the end of the day everyone in the school was required to sign a pledge that they wouldn’t do anything to harm a school computer (printed on haphazardly cut 1 inch wide strips of paper, obviously meant to satisfy her with no real meaning to the rest of the school.) She never stopped being mad at me.
I bring this up now because if it weren’t for a level headed principal (who probably just wanted to avoid paperwork) and, what I’m sure was a dedicated advocate in my favor – the gifted program teacher – I can’t imagine what the consequences could have been for such an absolutely harmless act. All of it only because that journalism teacher was absolutely terrified of what she didn’t understand. This happened at a time in my life when my world was small enough that this felt like a major incident.
And then to be Aaron – accused of doing something only minimally more criminal in actual consequence than what I did, but being hounded by government officials, threatened with prison time, and unable to explain yourself to someone who was willing to consider things with an open mind. Knowing that your life is ticking away constantly, wanting to work on new projects but so crushed by the weight of what was happening that you couldn’t even think about it. I understand his decision too easily. I know too many people who could come under similar government assault for doing harmless, or even beneficial work. How wonderful it could be to live on a planet where governments and religions didn’t try to smother progress, but instead tried to encourage the growth of math, science, art, and communication. Humans have so much potential that’s being crushed under so much unnecessary negative pressure. So that’s what I’m mourning right now – the reality that his case is not an exception.
Nostalgic moment: In that same “gifted” classroom I listened to my first .mp3. The song was “Band on the Run” and one of the other students had cleared almost everything else off of a laptop’s hard drive to make room for that one song. Never forget how amazing technology can be.