WASHINGTON -- The suicide of any promising 18-year-old is an unspeakable tragedy, engulfing family and friends in sorrow, loss and crippling what-ifs. For better or worse, however, the death of New Jersey college freshman Tyler Clementi doesn't leave the unanswerable "Why?"
He leapt from a bridge on Sept. 22 after two fellow Rutgers University freshmen allegedly pulled off a vicious stunt -- secretly activating a webcam in his room, watching him during an intimate encounter with another man and showing it live over the Internet. Dharun Ravi, who was Clementi's roommate, and Molly Wei are facing charges that could lead to prison.
Ravi's lawyer has said his client is no anti-gay bigot. (Wei's attorney says she's completely innocent.) Perhaps he's not.
But we don't need additional evidence to tell us that Ravi and Wei are callous, selfish and curiously disrespectful of other people's privacy. What did they imagine the outcome of their malicious caper would be?
Much of what passes for entertainment in popular culture these days involves young adults -- and, with increasing frequency, older ones -- freely submitting to ritual humiliation in exchange for instant notoriety. The early weeks of "American Idol" are always enlivened by the unintentional humor of would-be stars who have no business on any stage. And what would MTV do without Snooki and "The Situation," young adults willing to expose their stupidity to millions?
Given the times, it would be easy to conflate this case with all the other examples of a social networking culture run amok, of a generation who cannot help baring their souls (and bodies) to strangers, of a technology that has trampled the old rules of conduct.
But this is different. Ravi and Wei didn't air their own sexual antics, which would merely indicate exceedingly poor judgment and a tendency toward exhibitionism -- typical youthful indiscretions. They did something else: They targeted a sensitive young man. With or without anti-gay animus, Ravi and Wei showed an utter contempt for Clementi's rights and his humanity.
The tools they used to subject Clementi to public humiliation are relatively new -- the web camera, the Twitter page, the Internet connection streaming live images. But their sins are as old as human nature. They violated the Golden Rule. They treated Clementi in a way neither of them would ever want to be treated.
On campus, advocates for gay and lesbian students are demanding that the university do more to prevent the sort of abuse that Clementi endured. Their clamor joins a chorus of protests against cyber-bullying -- the coward's tactic in the Internet age.
Unfortunately, no number of policies and no amount of policing will stop those who are heartless enough and vicious enough to abuse others just because they believe they can get away with it. Laws and rule books are necessary checks on human behavior, but there is a limit to what they can accomplish.
This story might have ended differently if Wei had stopped her friend and high school classmate, Ravi, when he allegedly came to her room to set up his webcast. What if she had protested fiercely? What if she had had the courage to do what most of us find so difficult: to be a lone voice for doing the right thing?
A small showing of similar courage may have helped Massachusetts teenager Phoebe Prince, who killed herself earlier this year after she was tormented relentlessly by several schoolmates. In that case, teachers also apparently stood by and did nothing to help her -- a failure I find incomprehensible.
Ravi and Wei, meanwhile, are getting a healthy taste of retributive justice. Not only do they face the machinery of the criminal justice system, but they have also taken quite a lashing at the hand of public opinion, much of it expressed in cyber-space. That's the least that they deserve.