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The Clementi case
|Peter C. Hansen (September 30, 2010, 5:20 am)|
|A very sad case out of Rutgers today shows how the modern mania for livestreaming video, combined with an absolute lack of moral standards, has led to the suicide of a talented young violinist.|
The facts of the case are simple. Mr. Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers, requested exclusive use until midnight of the room he shared with Dharun Ravi. Mr. Ravi acceded, but then went to the room of his high school friend Molly Wei. Mr. Ravi turned on a hidden webcam to watch the unwitting Mr. Clementi have an encounter with another man. Mr. Ravi posted the video of this encounter online, and another such video two days later. Mr. Clementi soon thereafter leapt to his death from the George Washington Bridge.
As seems clear from Mr. Ravi's Twitter feed (since deleted, tellingly), Mr. Ravi was disgusted at having to share a room with a gay man. That's his prerogative – everyone is entitled to feel safe in a private refuge. Mr. Ravi, however, denied the same right to his roommate. If Mr. Ravi did not want to live with Mr. Clementi, he could have asked for a room transfer. Instead, he used streaming video to expose and humiliate Mr. Clementi to all the world. Through Mr. Ravi's malevolent act, the Web turned a human life with all its complexities into just another meaningless, tawdry Web image for people to laugh at.
The horrible irony is that a fleeting Web shot, so easily forgotten by viewers, is to the victim as shattering as a bullet. The immediate impact is over instantly, but the damage is permanent. Mr. Ravi created an image that could be dredged up from a hard drive at any moment, to haunt Mr. Clementi for the rest of his life. This goes beyond blackmail. It is the reduction of a human life into one degrading instant, forever replayed, allowing no progress and no redemption.
The modern, YouTube way of life puts everyone at the mercy of dirtbags like Mr. Ravi. All it takes is a hidden webcam to destroy anyone, anytime. In its mindless, democratized hyper-intrusiveness, our modern era has become 1984 rolled into A Clockwork Orange. There is not even a moral or prudential code of conduct by which one can avoid exposure. The whim of the vicious decides whose life is destroyed.
There is no turning back the technological clock, but the law and social opprobrium have to be brought to bear to deter people like Mr. Ravi. No doubt the Internet furies will soon descend on Mr. Ravi as if he were a medieval outlaw, and make an example of him. He could hardly cry injustice, and indeed it would make for a grimly satisfying irony. His torment would at least serve the purpose of brutally enforcing a basic social code of decency, which right now in this anarchic online society is perhaps the best that can be hoped for.
Garden State Equality is calling Mr. Ravi's act a "hate crime." This would not be the right way for the law to go, since it would imply that other motives for the act would be less blameworthy. The only mental state that really matters is the one that was missing rather than present with Mr. Ravi – a sense of restraint. If one lacks the basic human empathy needed to stop from pulling the trigger on an innocent person, one doesn't need hate to have an evil mind. The law should punish vicious crimes like Mr. Ravi's with a uniform harshness, so that all victims are avenged, and so all future such crimes are prevented.
This legal point having now been made, there is no ignoring the fact that Mr. Clementi was targeted because he was gay. While the law should not distinguish between victims, society is entitled, and indeed duty-bound, to condemn such hatefulness. Honorable people can disagree in good faith when homosexuality collides with social constructs like marriage or the military. They cannot disagree when it comes to the equal right of all people – gay or straight, white or black – to enjoy the equal protection of the law. To put it differently, boundary disputes do not require total war. A person's homosexuality does not give others license to ignore the law or common decency. Mr. Ravi felt he had such license, and will be very justly condemned for it.
Whatever lessons can be learned from this story, the terrible fact is that Mr. Clementi is not just a character in the story, any more than he was just a Web image. He and his musical talents have now been lost to his family and to us, permanently. In the spirit of solidarity against the crime – and the type of crime – that led to his death, please find here the link to a video series by Dan Savage that aims to help young LGBT folks who, like Mr. Clementi, are being tormented to their deaths by the viciously intolerant. If the series prevents one death, it will outweigh any cavil one could raise against it. Here's to hoping it isn't needed in the future.