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Brilliant Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi jumped off the bridge to his death allegedly after his peers recorded a video of him having sex with another male and shared it on the internet.
Authorities are still investigating the case to nail the causation facts and determine what charges they can bring against Dharun Ravi — the roommate who recorded the video via webcam — and Molly Wei, who watched the webcam with Ravi. It’s a horrible tragedy and a gross violation of privacy rights, but people want more in the way of punishment.
We have members of the community disturbingly calling for “murder and manslaughter” charges and tagging this as a hate crime even before all the facts are clear. Campus Pride is sending out emails targeting Rutgers University to expel Ravi and Wei. Online forums are full of loathing for the two students and some commentators have even signaled that their immigrant backgrounds had something to do with their behavior. Rounding up the firing squad to scapegoat two young adults for hatred that is sanctioned by society may hinge a bit on the hateful side. But such is the mantra of American society that values disciplining and punishment sometimes without regard to human life.
For lawmakers, hate crime laws serve a utilitarian and retributive function. They are supposed to provide a deterrent impact for willing perpetrators. Additionally, punishing bias-related incidents sends a message that a particular crime is more intolerable because it is tinged by a bias that society will not tolerate. But one look at bias-motivated crimes based on sexual orientation, gender identity and even race, and apparently there is some confusion. If the government and society will not tolerate bias against these particular social groups, why do they still face institutionalized discrimination?
Official policies sanction violence against minorities. And incarceration is the quick and easy answer. We already have punishment in place for the toughest crimes and dishing out harsher penalties is one way for society to escape responsibility. Hate crime laws sets up the state as the protector and purveyor of justice while casting attention away from how the state perpetrates violence, merely by categorizing people into different social groups. Bias-motivated crimes occur because society demonstrates that some people are less worthy than others. These are reflected in our laws ranging from the different sentencing guidelines for crack versus cocaine users to the federal ban on marriage equality.
We must direct the lens away from punishment to supporting our youth. Ravi and Wei did not kill Tyler Clementi. A homophobic and heterosexist society took his life. And our job should be to change the status quo to ensure that no other young adult jumps off the bridge because s/he feels powerless in a system that continues to discriminate against certain social groups.
Photo credit: A.gonzalez