Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless

Many people will recall Jean Seberg as the young blonde gamine who played opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s classic 1960′s film Breathless.

Few remember that she was hounded by the FBI for supporting liberal causes, and committed suicide in 1979 at the age of 40.  J. Edgar Hoover personally tried to destroy her career by planting the story that the married Seberg was pregnant by a member of the Black Panthers.  As the LA Times wrote in 2009:

Hoover oversaw the Seberg smear, ordering agents in Los Angeles to wait until Seberg’s pregnancy grew more visible. He didn’t want the wiretap–which agents apparently misinterpreted–to be suspected. Ronald Ostrow, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who worked in the Washington bureau, obtained documents in 1980 showing that FBI officials in Washington and agents in Los Angeles targeted Seberg for giving $10,500 to the Panthers.

The psychological toll of being targeted by the government for political beliefs is massive, the stuff that filled Soviet-era gulags. People like John Kiriakou and Thomas Drake have had their careers destroyed and their lives torn apart simply for telling uncomfortable truths that expose corruption and lawlessness at the highest levels. The only surprise is that there aren’t more people who simply can’t handle the intense pressure.

Seberg’s family blamed the FBI for her death, just as activist Aaron Swartz’s family rightly blames his overly zealous prosecutors. Public intolerance for this kind of government harassment and abuse of power should be vigorous and swift, but sadly there’s no better way for careerists to make their bones at the DoJ or any other agency right now than to engage in the personal destruction of activists advocating for the freedom of information.

Aaron Swartz isn’t the first victim of this war nor, sadly, will he be the last. His death is collateral damage in a war being waged by a ruthless government intent on protecting a secretive and unaccountable kleptocracy at all costs.

It’s tragic that this lesson must be learned anew by every generation, it seems.