Who Killed Tyler Clementi?

(AP Photo/The Star-Ledger, John O'Boyle, Pool)

Dharun Ravi waits for a judge to explain the law to a jury before jurors begin deliberating. Friday, Ravi was convicted of using a webcam to spy on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, having an intimate encounter with another man. Days later, Clementi committed suicide.

In September 2010, Rutgers student Dharun Ravi used a webcam to spy on his roommate having sex with another man (he didn’t tape him or broadcast him; he just took a few quick peeps and tweeted about it, according to in-depth reporting by Ian Parker at The New Yorker). Three days later,* that roommate, Tyler Clementi, jumped off a bridge to his death. On Friday, a New Jersey jury convicted Ravi of 15 charges, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation. Some of the charges carry possible sentences of ten years in prison. Because Ravi was born in India and arrived in the United States at the age of two, he could also be deported to a country he scarcely knows.

Like many in the LGBT community, I am torn about this. Clearly, what Ravi did was appalling—not specifically because he spied on his gay roommate but because hacking into anyone’s life in that way is a hideous invasion of privacy. I cannot imagine having to face the world if this were done to me.

But it wasn’t manslaughter. And it seems to me that it has been treated as if it were.

Dharun Ravi did not kill Tyler Clementi. Tyler Clementi killed himself. Another young man might have given his roommate the finger and returned the favor in kind. Or demanded that the Rutgers administration charge him with some infraction. Or—and I admit, this would take an exceptional person—decided to embrace his new notoriety and run for student-body president on the slogan “Nothing to Hide.” The point is that this isn’t a story that started with a webcam and ended with a dive off a bridge. Clementi must have already suffered a great deal of inner turmoil—whether shame and doubt, depression and despair, or a feeling that there was, indeed, something wrong with being gay—for that webcam to send him off the edge.

It’s horrifying that Clementi felt he couldn’t turn to anyone to help him through whatever he was feeling after his humiliation—not family, not friends, not campus counselors. According to Parker’s reporting, he did discuss (and dismissed the importance of) the incident with two close friends. He also reported the incident to the Rutgers administration, and his desire for a room change was taken seriously. Why, then, did he kill himself?

We can’t know. Suicide is a mystery. The perpetrator and victim die together. The punishment is delivered simultaneously with the crime.

Had Clementi lived, would Ravi have been prosecuted? I don’t think so. Had this boorish kid picked on someone else, or apologized sooner, or not been so stupid as to tweet about his online glimpse of his shirtless roommate kissing another man, he might not be facing prison. Here’s what New Yorker editor Amy Davidson wrote on the magazine’s blog, after the verdict, about Parker’s reporting:

Parker writes about an exchange Ravi had with a resident adviser—Clementi had talked to the R.A. about a room change—in which Ravi was confronted about the webcam and his own careless unkindness, and Clementi’s hurt. He then wrote Clementi a long text in which he talked about computers being set to sleep and accidental glimpses. Parker continues,

Ten minutes later, Ravi wrote again, in a less weaselly way. This message is something that one wishes had been written three weeks before: “I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it. In fact one of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship. I just suspected you were shy about it which is why I never broached the topic. I don’t want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it’s adding to my guilt. You have a right to move if you wish but I don’t want you to feel pressured to without fully understanding the situation.”

One does wish it had been written three weeks before, or maybe even three hours. Fifteen minutes earlier Clementi had posted to Facebook, “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” It was a few days before his body was found.

Here’s a second question: Had Ravi been white, native-born, or simply lighter-skinned, would he have been convicted? Maybe he would have, but maybe not. There’s plenty of evidence that darker skin leads to harsher convictions. There’s also a lot of post-9/11 bias against Ravi’s ethnic appearance. 

Yet a third question: What would the reaction be if someone had spied on a young Rutgers woman having sex with a man, calling her a “slut” and the like on Twitter? If she didn’t kill herself, would the peeper be prosecuted, or would the campus deride her as a slut?

I don’t know the answers to my questions. I raise them because I’m not certain that this trial produced justice. I raise them because I fear that Ravi is an easy scapegoat for a complicated problem.

I’m glad that some Americans are starting to stand up for young gay people. I’m glad we take seriously the kind of bullying about sex and sexuality (I don’t just mean gay sexuality but any sexuality) that can destroy an adolescent, filling her or him with shame and self-hatred. I don’t think we know yet what to do with cyberbullying and the kind of untrammeled gossip and invasions of privacy we can spread via the new social technologies. I don’t have answers. But I hope Ravi goes to jail for no longer than one year, with some serious empathy training and community service afterward, and that he remains here in the United States. I hope we don’t just close the door and say that justice has been done and the problem has been solved. The problems remain.


*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post erroneously stated that Tyler Clementi committed suicide three weeks after the webcam incident.  

You may also like