By CLIFF DUNN
The jury’s verdict last Friday in State of New Jersey vs. Dharun Ravi was foundational in many important ways, and gave me reason, for a change, to be grateful for the rational system of jury trials that was established under our Constitution. Having lived through the 1995 O.J. Simpson verdict, I know that this isn’t always a sure thing.
Having spent much of the past three weeks thinking my way through this case from all sides, my conclusion is that the right decision was handed down by a panel of honest citizens who, to their eternal credit, agonized over the ultimate fate of an emotionally-tortured Tyler Clementi.
Clementi was a mere 18 years old when he decided on his own that life was so not-worth-living that he would deprive his parents, family, and people who cared about him the privilege of knowing what kind of man he would grow up to become.
But the jury’s decision will resonate forever on the way in which we as a society look at bullying. These honorable men and women had to weigh the horrible consequences of Clementi’s roommate’s boorish, churlish, seemingly-incorrigible teenaged behavior with the type of man he, too, will ultimately become.
Dharun Ravi is by accounts not a bad kid, just one who is endowed with a casual homophobia that is to be heard in high school and college locker rooms as often, frankly, as it is to be heard on the streets and in the taverns of South Florida’s own gay village. “Oh my God, did you see who ‘she’ took home last night,” is a familiar refrain that may be heard to be regurgitated from one end of the Drive to the other end of Dixie on any given. Not all churlish, boorish behavior originates with the straights.
Ravi’s behavior has been chronicled so often that I need not recount his demonization of a gay roommate’s intimate encounter with a trick the latter had met online. “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with another dude. Yay,” he tweeted, and then again later, “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 p.m. and 12. Yes it’s happening again.” Someone, somehow, had a problem with the gays.
Whatever was going through Clementi’s tortured psyche at the moment he posted on Facebook, “Jumping off the gw [George Washington] bridge sorry,” we know the end result.
Time stamps show that Clementi posted his suicide note at 8:42 p.m. on Sept. 22, 2010, four minutes before Ravi sent a 266-word apology to Clementi, at 8:46 p.m. It read in part: “I want to explain what happened Sunday night when you requested to have someone over. I didn’t realize you wanted the room in private.” Ravi attests to a lack of homophobia and a tolerance for Clementi’s sexuality: “I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it,” he texted Clementi. “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, its adding to my guilt.”
We don’t know if Clementi ever read Ravi’s apology, or whether it would have had—or did in fact have—any effect on the tragedy to come. We do know that Ravi, who was 18 years old at the time, was acting like any teen I’ve ever met when he deleted 86 text messages he had sent to his high school friends in the days after Clementi’s suicide, clearly an attempt to cover his tracks.
As the jury found, “boys will be boys” (and “girls will be girls”) is no longer a legal justification for inflicting mental harm and infringing upon someone’s privacy because of whom they identity as. This is foundational, and will resonate, Butterfly Effect-like, in schoolyards and in classrooms— secular and religious—until they turn the lights out.
My boyfriend has a much younger, younger brother. By the time he turns the age I now am, I will have been playing pinochle with John Adams, Dorothy Parker, and Liberace for at least half a decade. His children— regardless of whether he turns out gay or straight—will have no concept of the degree of bullying with which men of a certain age or even younger had to contend. That is seminal.
“The embarrassment of ridicule is always painful. The sting is greater when someone you hold close inflicts it. Shouldn’t the consequences be unforgiving?” asked Dean Trantalis, a local attorney and gay rights activist and advocate following the verdict.
The estimable former Vice Mayor of Fort Lauderdale was echoing the sentiments of numerous Americans, LGBT and straight, who see this as an object lesson to bullies and victims everywhere, but most especially in a nation where the rule of law prevails, rather than the rule of men, and I agree.
But Dharun Ravi, now 20 and by the reckoning of our base-10 numbering system very much a teenager, deserves, if not our sympathy, then certainly a chance at his life. He may yet turn it into something that honors what Clementi, his first victim, may have become. There are two victims of the teenaged Dharun Ravi’s bad, bad judgment. I hope the judge recommends deportation.