The problem with dystopia is that even when things go right they go wrong.
In 2009 Dharun Ravi spied by webcam on his Rutgers roommate Tyler Clementi in an assignation with another man, and then tried, semipublically, to arrange a viewing party the next time Clementi took a date home. Clementi threw himself off the George Washington Bridge the next day.
Ravi was found guilty today of a handful of charges, including invasion of privacy, intimidation, and evidence tampering. His sentence hasn't been announced yet, but word is that it will be between 5 to 10 years, and he may also be deported to India, the country of his birth.
There's a lot to be said for all this: We don't as a society do enough about bullying. Bullshit like Ravi pulled on Clementi too often goes completely unremarked, let alone punished.
A boy is dead.
But that's where I, at least, start to run into trouble. Though he is to some extent complicit in Clementi's death, Dharun Ravi is not a murderer. Indeed, even indirectly he's hardly (as Dan Savage pointed out at the time) the only one responsible. He behaved inappropriately, and the consequences of his behaviour were grave, but to what extent is it right to punish him for those outcomes?
5 years in prison is a lot to put on a 20-year-old. Hell, it's a lot to put on anyone. It's hard to see how society as a whole benefits from putting this kid, vicious little snake though he may be, away for most of his 20s.
But that's the bind we find ourselves in, isn't it? This is just how our justice system works. Ravi was brought to the attention of the authorities because Clementi killed himself, and the charges against him were brought and pursued with such fervour as a result of the death. But I don't believe there was an "and also, the victim died" rider on any of the charges he was found guilty of. These are actually the punishments the American justice system demands for these crimes.
Do we set the penalties as high as we do because we really consider 10 years in prison a fair punishment for them? Do we cost in the terrible things that result from them, that the perpetrators nevertheless cannot be tried for? Or is it simply an artifact of a political system that makes it much easier to raise penalties than lower them?
(hint: it's problably option 3)
But go back think about the process here for a moment -- these are charges that are unlikely to ever be laid unless something terrible happens as a result, despite the fact that, as in this case, the degree to which the perpetrator is actually responsible for those consequences might be rather low. We're not punishing for the actual offense charged, but for the (possibly minimally related) effects thereof.
I think this is a similar phenomenon to the Capone effect, where we nab somebody for a lesser charge because we don't have a strong enough case to nail them for the greater. Except Capone was actually guilty of many many murders, whereas Ravi is an asshole teenager being lumped with full responsibility for a tragedy that was only partially of his making.
And then, to top it off, the primary punishment mechanism we deploy is hilariously destructive, inefficient, expensive, and possible even unjust.
A commenter on Dan Savage's post on the issue today wrote that he was uneasy with a "back-door murder trial" -- and that's exactly what this is. For all that I feel strongly that Ravi should be punished, it shouldn't be for murder.
Complicating matters in the other direction, Ravi himself rejected a plea bargain that would have netted him 600 hours of community service, no jail time, and help with immigration to avoid deportation. Instead he pled innocent, and lost. Easy to just say, well, then, fuck him, right? He had his chance.
I don't know about that, either. If 10 years is too much for his actual crime (being a bully and an asshole), then it's still too much if we add the "crime" of making a poor tactical decision in his defense.
Better than nothing? I think so, probably, but I can't help but regret that we're meeting wrong with wrong.