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Why I Don’t Share Criticisms of the Ravi Verdict

by Steve Weinstein
Monday Apr 9, 2012

Everyone knows about the case of the Rutgers University freshman, who secretly set up a webcam in his dorm room and filmed an assignation his gay roommate had with another man. The gay freshman teen, Tyler Clementi, was apparently so distraught at Dharun Ravi's deception, so terrified at having the visuals of him and another man go public, and anticipating public humiliation, that he threw himself off a bridge.

The ensuing trial was one of the most covered in recent history. By one estimate, over 100 news media were represented in the New Jersey courtroom when Ravi was convicted. The case seemed to distill some of the most hot-button issues in the air: anti-gay bullying among young adults; the ability to humiliate someone exponentially thanks to the Web and social media; the lack of privacy in an age when any moderately tech-savvy person can become a cyber spy.

Looking at the tens of thousands of comments left at news sites, I got the feeling that the general consensus was that Ravi was an arrogant jerk who, at best, didn't care about Clementi's feelings. At worst, he was a bully of the worst order, whose actions led directly to suicide. The fact that Ravi came from an affluent family and Clementi from people of more moderate circumstances added another layer of anger.

But there were those who, while not defending Ravi, believed that he was being made a scapegoat. For them, the intense media attention at least partly forced the judge and jury's hands. Some question whether Ravi should have been convicted of a hate crime. And they raise other issues about fairly meting out justice.

Interestingly, many of these dissenting voices are coming from gay men. All of them oppose bullying, certainly; but they also oppose what they see as an unbalanced legal system.

At the urging of a reader, EDGE recently ran an article explaining a contrary position to what some see as a lynch mob mentality.

Since I happen to agree strongly with the jury's verdict and disagree strongly with these sentiments, I will take the arguments point by point:

• Former New York Times Managing Editor Bill Keller suggested that "the court is looking to make an example of Ravi. To which I say: "Yes, and ...?" Although this case was virtually without precedent, there have been several cases of peers torturing someone using the Web and social media.

Taunts once heard only among those in a school or even a town, now can be witnessed by literally billions of people. Think only of the case of the mother who disguised herself on the Web as a teen-age girl so she could torment, to the point of suicide, an unpopular classmate of her daughter's.

If the crimes to which a jury of his peers convicted Ravi carry a sentence, then that sentence is on the books. If a judge chooses to use the wider legal penalty, it's second-guessing to suggest he's "making a point." But even if he were, the law exists in part exactly as that reason. Every trial is, in a sense, a morality play for the masses.

One of the purposes of conviction is to set an example to others. Ravi, in fact, should be an example.

• Gay activist William Dobbs has been especially out in front of this issue. He accused Rutgers University of "scapegoating" Ravi.

I have a simple answer to this: Rutgers didn't charge him with a crime, convict him or incarcerate him. All Rutgers did was have Ravi leave the school after the suicide. Trust me: If Rutgers had let Ravi stay during the pre-trial and trial period, the resultant outcry against the school would have been deafening. Not only that, but what Ravi did was so clearly a gross violation of school policy, to have let him remain would have left a horrendous message to other students about what kind of behavior would be tolerated.

• Dobbs also warns about the dangers of "vengeance."

I admit to finding this puzzling. What is the law, if not institutionalized vengeance? We can talk all we want about incarcerating people for rehabilitation, to prevent harm to themselves and others, and so on.

But the very concept of "justice" is to mete out punishment for the satisfaction of the injured party. From Hammurabi on through the Romans, Anglo Saxons and America's Founding Fathers, this is one of the cornerstones of jurisprudence.

• Some gay activists at Rutgers argue the larger issue of homophobia is larger than Ravi (and his co-conspirator who turned state's evidence).

It's simply beyond me how paying attention to the particular (Ravi) somehow obscures the general (homophobia).

• The activists even more broadly indict the entire criminal justice system as "historically based against people of color."

If I read this correctly, this argument is being made because Ravi, who is an Indian national, has a skin tone darker than Northern Europeans. If that's the point, it's flat-out ridiculous. Nowhere did any legal authority make any reference to Ravi's ethnicity.

What I find most obnoxious about this line of reasoning, however, is that these activists are indirectly using Ravi's skin tone as mitigating his crime against the milk-white Clementi. The further implications of this argument are obnoxious, even if unintentional.

• Dobbs maintains "a full investigation had not been done." It's impossible to see how the local police and prosecutors could have been more thorough. With international attention bearing down on them, I would counter that this case received a disproportionate amount of pre-trial investigation -- not to mention the volumes of background information from the media.

• One major line of argument is that the case wouldn't have received so much attention, nor would Ravi have been given such a drastic sentence, if Clementi hadn't killed himself.

The former point is probably true. But why is that so exceptional? If two people get into an argument and shout at each other, no one notices. If one of them pulls out a shotgun and mows the other person down, it's news.

As for the sentence, many people have pointed out that the jury was specifically instructed to ignore whatever they may have known about what happened to Clementi after the webcam incident. To imply the judge and jury ignored this advice is to call the entire jury system into question.

• For me, the most obnoxious comment, ironically, came from columnist Dan Savage. Ironic, because Savage founded the highly successful "It Gets Better Project" as a response to the Clementi suicide. "I'm very sorry to say this but it has to be said: Tyler's own family may bear some responsibility for his decision to end his life," he wrote in a column that, for good measure, also threw in Clementi's previous schools and organized religion.

Without a suicide note or a diary or notebooks, this is all speculation of the worst kind. It has since come out that Clementi had an out-gay older brother. There apparently may have been some kind of conflict between Tyler and his mother about his own coming-out. But coming out, especially while still in one's teens, is always fraught with conflicts and drama. One had only to look at the faces of Clementi's parents at the trial to know that they deeply loved their son.

As for the organized-religion part, that is just idle speculation. No, we know only know for certain that Clementi was distraught when he found out what Ravi had done, and that he feared being humiliated both locally and globally by Ravi's callousness.

For me, the largest validation of what the judge and jury did comes from Ravi himself. He actually had the chutzpah to tell a reporter, ""After all this time and reading his conversations and how and what he was doing before, I really don't think he cared at all."

Even after all that has happened to him and anticipation of what is going to happen to him, he still just doesn't get it. As far as I'm concerned, they can lock this guy up and throw away the key. And when he gets out, deport him.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


  • , 2012-04-09 22:38:39

    You are spot on, very well stated. I would love to have you address the phony BYU video.

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