The roommate from hell

One of the hardest things about parenting is letting go. We know so much more about the world than our children do, how it can be a cruel and disappointing place, that unscrupulous and evil people exist, that dreams can be crushed. For parents, sending a child to college inspires both excitement and fear. It is exciting to launch a child into the wider world, but no one lets a child go without a nagging feeling of fear. Will he be able to manage? Will she find friends? Will they be happy?

In their worst nightmare, no parent could imagine what happened to Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi. His roommate turned out to be a vicious bully, a young man who deliberately devised and carefully planned a public humiliation that combined homophobia, voyeurism and technology in a mix so potent that Tyler literally jumped off a bridge to his death to escape the pain.

No doubt Tyler Clementi felt anxious about disclosing his sexuality to his roommate, Dharun Ravi. Perhaps he anticipated derision or disgust. Perhaps he anticipated derogatory remarks. But surely he did not anticipate that Ravi would hide a webcam with the intent of videotaping Clementi’s sexual encounters. He couldn’t have imagined that Ravi would broadcast the video around the world in real time. And surely, he never could have dreamt, even in his worst nightmares, that Ravi would Twitter the news, inviting friends and strangers to view the video feed. In order to imagine the crime that was committed against him, he would have had to believe that his roommate was stunningly cruel, indeed depraved.

Where does someone like Dharun Ravi come from? What motivated him to stage an elaborate public humiliation of someone he barely knew? Was it homophobia or was it simply pathological cruelty? It wasn’t because he was drunk or stoned and didn’t understand the ramifications of what he was doing. It was planned in advance and done more than once. And what about next door neighbor Molly Wei? What form of pathology made her willing to participate by using her computer to broadcast the feed to the world? Did she think it was funny? Did it make her feel powerful?

It is tempting to argue that there is nothing new under the sun. Bullying has always existed. Homophobia has always been tolerated and often encouraged. New technologies have merely opened up new vistas for bullies. Yet something about this crime seems different and it isn’t just that webcams and computers were involved. Strip away the technology and we are left with pointless, heartless cruelty. What made Ravi and Wei do it? Did they set off for college with a mental to do list: get good grades, make new friends, torture innocent classmates?

And how do we as parents protect our children from such devastating attacks? Some newspaper reports claim that Tyler Clementi asked to be moved to another room with a different roommate, but Rutgers refused. I have to believe that officials at Rutgers would have honored Clementi’s request if they had understood that he was gay and his roommate was homophobic, but should disclosure of such intimate details really be necessary just to get a room change? How can colleges expect to create a welcoming environment for gay and lesbian students if they require those students to publicly out themselves in order to have their pleas heard by the university?

In the weeks and months ahead, we will undoubtedly get answers to some of our questions about the backgrounds and motivations of Ravi and Wei. But I doubt we will ever find the answer to the question at the heart of this tragedy. What motivated two young adults, who apparently had every advantage our society could offer, to display such startling cruelty toward another human being?