Justice is a difficult thing, sometimes

The New Jersey judge in the case of the Rutgers’ student who Tweeted his roommate having sex with another man has had to speak out in defense of his sentencing the defendant to 30 days in jail, 300 hours of community service time and a $10,000 fine.  It’s a shame he felt he had to do so, but it is also totally unsurprising.

It’s a shame because Judge Glenn Berman did the right thing, in a case that was so fraught with emotion, and resisted mistaking justice for vengeance. He showed wisdom and discretion, which is what we want from a judge.
Don’t get me wrong, what Rutgers’ student Darhun Ravi did was evil; Judge Berman called his actions “unconscionable.”  Ravi’s callous disregard for the well being of his roommate, Tyler Clementi, and his willingness to expose Clementi’s personal life to ridicule for his own amusement speaks volumes about his character, and none of it good. The fact that Clementi committed suicide moves the entire incident from sordid to tragic.

But ridicule and invasion of privacy, as awful as they are, are not physical abuse. Ravi did not beat, rape, torture or murder Clementi.   While there was a probability of emotional harm in his actions, there was no inevitability of physical harm. There is a big difference between sending out Tweets urging others to make fun of someone and beating them senseless.  To conflate the two minimizes the horror of the physical attacks that gay men and lesbians are sometimes subject to.

Furthermore, it minimizes the autonomy of Tyler Clementi himself.

Suicide is a choice.  Someone else might well have been angry, humiliated, or hurt, but might not have turned that destructive horror in on himself.  To ignore that his suicide was a choice is to deprive Tyler of the dignity of selfhood. Ravi may have made his life hellish, but he did not kill him: Clementi did that on his own.  And while Ravi’s outrageous conduct may have been the last straw, it cannot have been the only straw.  It becomes too easy to fixate on that final, galvanizing incident, and ignore whatever went before.

Judge Berman was right: prison is not the answer here.  Sending Ravi to prison for five years as the prosecution requested would have done nothing but make him a martyr of sorts for homophobes everywhere.  Prison needs to be reserved for the worst offenders, those whose crime cannot be adequately punished any other way. That we so often fail to do so — witness the number of people in prison for nonviolent drug-related offenses — doesn’t mean we should throw just anyone in a prison cell because we abhor what they did. It is too easy to rename our desire for retribution as a demand for justice.

The system worked well here.  I hope Darhun Ravi understands how fortunate he is that it did.

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