LONDON -- Dharun Ravi – the 20 year-old who was convicted last week for spying on his former Rutgers roommate, Tyler Clementi, with a webcam – has finally spoken to the press. And as a parent, I feel more conflicted about this case than ever.
This was never a straightforward case from the get-go. As Ian Parker’s remarkably detailed article in The New Yorker pointed out, there was no question that Ravi used his webcam to spy on Clementi while the latter was engaged in a sexual encounter with a man in their shared room at Rutgers. And there was also no question that Ravi had invited others to join in on a (failed) second viewing of another, similar encounter and then destroyed electronic evidence ex post.
What was never fully established was how much this incident drove Clementi to kill himself by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge the next day (as opposed to pre-existing mental health issues). Nor was it clear whether homophobia was what drew Ravi to invade his roommate’s privacy in the first place.
Like many, I was fascinated by this story from its inception. For starters, Clementi attended my public high school in suburban New Jersey – Ridgewood High – where many of my childhood friends now send their kids. So I always felt a personal connection to the case.
There was also something particularly moving about a gifted young violinist taking his life in such a spectacularly symbolic fashion – by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge. As a youngster growing up in Northern New Jersey, “jumping off the George Washington Bridge” was a kind of short hand we used for doing something incredibly stupid. Now that old saying has a new, more tragic meaning.
But I also couldn’t look away from this story because as a parent, I found myself sympathizing both with the dead young man as well as with his tormentor. I have an 11-year-old son. And while I hope to God that he would never be as insensitive, cruel or just plain foolish to film someone else doing anything private, I can’t say for certain that he wouldn’t. Indeed, it isn’t difficult to imagine any child taking a prank too far, even one as awful as this one turned out to be.
And I feel even more that way having now heard from Ravi himself, who – for reasons that aren’t entirely clear – refused to take the stand to explain himself during the trial. In an exclusive interview with the Newark Star Ledger, Ravi now says, "I didn’t act out of hate and I wasn’t uncomfortable with Tyler being gay." Instead, he insists, " I got caught up in what I thought was funny, and my own ego... I never really thought about what it would mean to Tyler...I know that’s wrong, but that’s the truth." He also claims to feel very sorry about Clementi’s death.
I’m sure that many will interpret this interview as a calculated effort by Ravi’s defense team to present him as stupid and callous - but not criminal - as they gear up for an appeal. And maybe that’s all this interview was – a publicity stunt. But as I read Ravi’s words, I couldn’t help but be somewhat persuaded that maybe he was, in fact, young, stupid and unfeeling but perhaps not malicious.
Of course, whatever inspired this chain of events, remorse will never be enough to bring Tyler Clementi back to his family. Nor will it likely spare Ravi from reconsidering the error in his ways. He faces up to 10 years imprisonment for his crimes, which include multiple counts of invasion of privacy, some counts of intimidating Clementi because of his sexual orientation, as well as tampering with evidence by changing and deleting tweets Ravi posted about his plans to spy on Clementi with a webcam. Deportation to Ravi’s native India is also a possibility.
But it can change how we as parents react to this sort of thing going forward. After the verdict, Annemarie McAvoy, an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School in New York, told The Washington Post: “Hopefully, parents will use this as an example for their children.”
Indeed, we not only can, we must.
In my own case, I’ve already had my 11-year-old read The New Yorker article down to the last detail. While it contained some grown up language and situations - including references to oral sex - I decided that he needed to see the direct and indirect consequences of bullying, voyeurism and homophobia, whichever combination of those was at work in this particular case.
My son attends an all-boys school in London and his school has recently launched a campaign to make the boys aware of bullying, especially on the Internet. To drive the significance of this issue home to parents, they showed us this heart-rending video. I’m going to show that to my son as well.
And I will definitely take him to see the new movie, Bully, whether or not it manages to acquire a PG rating.
Because unless our children – and let’s be honest, we ourselves – know what’s at stake, we’re never going to avoid repeating the mistakes that Dharun Ravi made.