By now, the whole world knows about the Tyler Clementi- Dharun Ravi case. Dharun, then an eighteen year old freshman at Rutgers University filmed his gay roommate Tyler making out with another man, and shared the material online. Clementi- obviously disturbed by the turn of events took his own life by jumping off a bridge. Ravi was charged with a host of cases, including hate crime and now faces upto ten years in prison.
The whole case raises so many questions we need to seriously think about. Firstly, has justice been done in this particular case? Before we answer that, we need to know what we understand by “justice” in the first place. Plato taught us that justice happens when each individual gets what she deserves- either good or bad. Has Dharun- who many would argue was only indulging in typical teenage behavior, and was not hateful in the practical sense of the word- got a punishment that was proportionate to his crime? Would he have been given the same punishment if Tyler had not decided to kill himself? Gay activists say this verdict would be a deterrent to similar crimes in the future- but is it just for one young man to pay for the collective sin of American homophobia?
The second question is about the validity of hate crime laws. Dharun was unfortunate enough to have done his foolish act in a state with very strong anti-hate crime laws. These laws effectively tell us that any crime- even if it is not physically violent- becomes magnified in its seriousness if the motive is established to be hate on the basis of the victim’s identity. Now apart from the moral question of why should a crime be treated any differently just because the motive was prejudice against a community, it raises many legal issues as well. The prosecution tries to establish what was going on in the mind of the aggressor at the time the crime was committed. This is a grey area for both the prosecution and the defendants, and a judgment extremely difficult. In this particular case, Dharun has said he had no problem with Tyler’s sexuality and the only reason he filmed him was because he found Tyler’s thirty year old partner “strange”. The prosecutors referred to some of his texts showing that Tyler’s sexuality was one the reasons he targeted him. Ravi was eventually found guilty of hate crime as well.
The third question is whether genuine regret counts. In a recent interview, Dharun admitted he’s not the same person he was two years ago- and that he was terribly sorry for what he did to Tyler. He had even texted an apology to him- but he was a few minutes late. This is what Dharun told Tyler in his final message: “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”. Tyler had already killed himself by then. We all do terrible things during our teenage years, and as college students. We regret them later in life, feel sorry, sometimes even laugh about it. We do not go to jail for it.
The fourth question is the larger issue of homophobia. Tyler’s suicide led to a great degree of awareness on anti-gay bullying in America. Public meetings were held, support groups were set up and awareness campaigns launched. This is the only way to tackle homophobia. How will some sort of a collective vengeance on a hapless college freshman- who behaved in a way many college freshmen do- help matters? How will spending ten years in prison with hardened criminals make Dharun more gay friendly? These are questions that the spirited gay activists in America need to explain.
The fifth question is something more relevant to the Indian-American community, and also families back here in India. It was obvious during the hearings that Dharun had received no sensitization about gays at his home for the simple reason that the issue never came up. This is something that was not unique to Dharun’s family. For millions of Indian kids, sex education is something they receive at school and through peer groups, apart from the more questionable media. It’s time Indian parents realized that not talking about sexuality can be colossally more harmful than talking about it.
One life has already been ruined, and another one is about to be. Homophobia is bad enough. But when strategies to tackle it screw things up too, it means the need of the hour is to stop and think.