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A Sad True Story Shows Morality is Lacking

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

This is a story with no good ending. There's not likely to be a peaceful reckoning, or a positive life lesson. It's just pointless and sad, no matter how you look at it.

It's the story of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman in New Jersey who took his own life in September 2010 by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after discovering that his roommate, Dharun Ravi, had spied on him during a gay sexual encounter by using a webcam in their shared dorm room. Worse, Ravi had invited others to view the scene.

It's also Ravi's story, the tale of an immature and morally inept young adult who, for reasons that now have been labeled "hate," will serve up to 10 years in prison for creating the humiliation and emotional distress that appears to have been the reason for Clementi's suicide.

Ravi was convicted last week of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, and tampering with a witness and evidence in the aftermath of Clementi's death. Ravi attempted to delete certain texts and online communications in an apparent effort to mitigate his role in causing his roommate's emotional state.

No matter how you cut it, this is a story without a moral, unless you count the advice of Lynn Audet, a juror in the case against Ravi, who said after the verdict, "Deletion is futile. Text messages, tweets, emails, iChats are never gone. Be careful. I've already told my kids, be careful. If you're going to put something in writing, be able to back it up."

As if to underscore the superficial morality that guides our nation's youngest generation, the best we can come up with seems to be: Your love of technology may come back to bite you in the end, so watch what you say in cyberspace.

Why does it seem ironically fitting that public moralizing about this tale lacks maturity?

When the story of Clementi's sad suicide made headlines, I recall discussing it with my then-middle-school-age daughter. Her indignant response when I relayed that one roommate had invaded another's privacy in such a brash and callous way: "Who does that?"

One answer says it was Ravi, the immature college boy. He wasn't malicious, his defense attorney said, but rather meant to (in Internet gaming slang) "pwn" his roommate with a thoughtless prank.

The alternative explanation - the one that got so much media traction after Clementi's death - is that Ravi is an example of the intolerance of homosexuality that prompts the bullying that is epidemic across our country.

In a very real sense, though, it doesn't matter. Both explanations point to the same problem, the same void in too many young people: a lack of morality to guide behavior.

A person with a well-developed conscience knows it always is wrong to invade the privacy of another person. Even if Ravi had objected to being asked to leave his room in order for his roommate to privately entertain a guest, Ravi had no right or cause to exploit Clementi.

Moreover, a person with a well-developed conscience is capable of holding whatever opinion he chooses about another person without acting on that opinion. It's irrelevant whether the issue is sexuality or race or obesity or intelligence or gender. You can hate someone because they look at you funny or have an obnoxious laugh or speak with an accent you don't like.

You just can't torment them. That's wrong. It's always wrong, no matter why you do it.

Put another way, there are some things you just don't do.

This is what's known as a moral imperative. Unfortunately, Ravi's moral compass - the thing that should have pointed him toward true north and a path of correct behavior - clearly is as immature as his ultimate course of action.

In the aftermath of such a tragedy, we all ought to learn the moral of a story such as this: It's nothing less than morality itself.

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