Dharun Ravi is being jailed for a suicide

Posted: May 25, 2012

By Lalita Clozel

This week, former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail for using a webcam to spy on an intimate encounter between his roommate, Tyler Clementi, and another man shortly before Clementi committed suicide. Prosecutors, gay-rights advocates, and others have argued that the sentence is lenient given the charges. In fact, it’s fairly harsh.

The Clementi case appears to fit a victim-vs.-bully narrative: A young, gay introvert is rudely exposed by his roommate and then jumps off a bridge. It’s difficult to resist drawing a cause-and-effect relationship between these events.

Yet we must remember that Ravi was not charged with Clementi’s death, and he shouldn’t be sentenced for it, either. Ravi was convicted of 15 different crimes, including bias intimidation and invasion of privacy, none of them related to the suicide.

Had Clementi never jumped off a bridge, would anyone be clamoring for a prison sentence? Without the fact of Clementi’s death, this would seem like a case of sending a kid to prison for acting like one. In most cases involving a 20-year-old who committed a cruel prank at the age of 18, we would be disposed toward leniency.

Ravi’s prank seems less outrageous in the context of college dormitory life. With public showers, common living rooms, and tiny shared bedrooms, dorms tend to rob students of their privacy regardless of whether their roommates are training webcams on them. Though Ravi clearly went a step further in actively invading his roommate’s privacy, college dorms impose indignities on a daily basis.

Roommate horror stories are another reliable feature of college life, but there’s evidence that Clementi himself did not think Ravi was all that bad. When he found out about his roommate’s first webcam intrusion, Clementi hesitated to change rooms, writing of Ravi in a forum that "aside from being an a—hole from time to time, he’s a pretty decent roommate." Clementi worried that he could end up with "somebody worse" if he complained and was assigned a new roommate — hardly the language of someone who felt intimidated or persecuted.

We certainly don’t know whether Ravi’s antics motivated Clementi’s suicide. Many other factors, most of which we know nothing about, could have affected the young man’s state of mind, including his romantic and family relationships. In any case, identifying the complex causes of depression and suicide — let alone assigning blame for them — is well beyond the capacity and mission of prosecutors and judges. We can’t hold Ravi responsible for Clementi’s death in a vain attempt to avenge a suicide.

Tyler Clementi was an individual, not a phenomenon. Dharun Ravi was an immature college student, not a homophobic monster. Will a month in jail teach him any kind of lesson a nonviolent 20-year-old deserves?

Lalita Clozel is the Inquirer Editorial Board’s intern and a rising senior majoring in philosophy and economics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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