Last week Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. The (Newark) Star-Leger reports here:
Freshman Tyler Clementi was enrolled at Rutgers University for a little more than three weeks when he asked his roommate if he could have the dorm room to himself on a Sunday evening.
The roommate, Dharun Ravi, agreed and went down the hall to friend’s room, according to fellow students and law enforcement officials. There, he remotely turned on a webcam and — either deliberately or accidentally — watched Clementi in a sexual encounter with another man over the internet.
“Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay,” Ravi wrote in a Sept. 19 post on his Twitter page.
Two days later, police said Ravi tried to use the webcam again to catch his roommate in a sex scene. This time Ravi failed, but he told all 148 followers on his Twitter account when to log on to a live video chat to watch.
The following day, police believe Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge in an apparent suicide. A post on his Facebook page said, “jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
Mr. Clementi’s roommate, Mr. Ravi, and a dorm neighbor, Ms. Molly Wei, each have been charged with two counts of invasion of privacy. According to the New York Times reports here that, “[t]he most serious charges carry a maximum sentence of five years.” The Times reporter wrote in the same article, “It is unclear what Mr. Clementi’s sexual orientation was; classmates say he mostly kept to himself.”
Does Mr. Clementi’s sexual orientation matter? Yes, in the sense that Mr. Ravi tweeted that he had seen Mr. Clementi “making out with a dude,” and sought to capture the next encounter on film, with the apparent intent of humilating Mr. Clementi. On the other hand, I’m not sure what the reporter implies. In saying that Mr. Clementi’s sexual orientation was “unclear,” is this factual groundwork for a defense against a possible hate-crime charge — that Mr. Ravi didn’t know Mr. Clementi was (or was not) gay? Or that the suicide would be “more tragic” if Mr. Clementi’s were falsely thought to be gay and then killed himself? But if he were gay and then killed himself…well, gay people are troubled like that? I hope that is not what the reporter meant.
This tragedy exposes the cruelty that human beings can inflict on each other. Mr. Ravi acted intentionally and with pre-planning to make public a digital recording of a private sexual encounter between Mr. Clementi and another man. In what universe is that merely a high-tech “prank” or “poor judgement and bad behavior….hallmarks of adolescence,” as one story puts it here? Mr. Ravi turned a sexual episode from Mr. Clementi’s life into entertainment, into a freak show that college students could look at and laugh. Yes, college freshmen can be immature. But where were these students’ inner voices saying, “This isn’t nice; we shouldn’t do it”? Or, “Noone should be a target because of their sexual orientation.” Mr. Ravi and Ms. Wei are both people of color. Had they never experienced what it is like to be “other”-ed? None of Mr. Ravi’s 100+ Twitter followers urged him not to proceed?
What’s the difference between what Mr. Ravi and Ms. Wei did and the baseball-bat murder of an Ecuadorean immigrant José O. Sucuzhañay in Brooklyn in 2008? That Mr. Ravi and Ms. Wei didn’t get their hands dirty? Or that they didn’t kill anyone…Mr. Clementi killed himself?
Mr. Clementi found himself in emotional darkness. He must have felt he had no other option other than to take his own life. There are some people who suffer so badly — from mental illness or otherwise — that interventions are difficult. But Mr. Clementi’s death is a clarion call to work against institutional and interpersonal indifference to the humanity of others. To intervene against cruelty. To speak out against acts intended to harass, embarrass or humilate. To work for a world free of hate.