Dharun Ravi was found guilty of invasion of privacy and a host of other charges in a sequence of incidents, including spying via webcam, that ultimately culminated in the suicide of his roommate Tyler Clementi (left). Ravi faces up to ten years' imprisonment, and deportation to his native India.
Now, since it's been a couple of weeks, a lot has already been written about whether or not Ravi was culpable, whether others had a role, what it says about us as a society that we continue to demonize and ridicule homosexuality (or conversely, what it says about us that we are able to demonize and ridicule someone for being a peeping Tom and a loudmouth). I'm not going to say anything about that. As is my wont, I'm going to talk about statistics, but with an eye toward how we perceive events like this.
In a way, those who wonder how we can hound Ravi the way we do have a point, even if I disagree with their larger perspective: What Ravi did, as wrong as it was, is probably happening all over the country—or the world—as we speak. Is Ravi wronger because what he did led to Clementi's suicide? Should he, in effect, be the scapegoat on which we place all the otherwise indistinguishable wrongs that, by sheer dumb luck, resulted in nothing more than a change of roommates? I've been following the Ravi/Clementi case for a few months, after Clementi's suicide but before the trial began, and I seem to recall that Clementi did in fact look into switching rooms, but for whatever reason did not manage to do so before his death. If he had changed rooms, where would we be now? Would we be up in arms about homophobia and scapegoating?
This is only part of a general problem that human beings have with assessing rare events. To be sure, it's not simply a matter of placing too great an emphasis on the result of those events, although we do do that. (Many of us greatly fear the rare airplane crashes, even though they are at least an order of magnitude safer than road travel by practically any metric you care to choose.) More than that, it's that we just do not have the vocabulary to compare these rare events, and their consequences, with their more typical brethren.
Interestingly, we don't really run into significant roadblocks with their opposite number, the rare non-events. If someone intentionally shoots a bullet into a crowd, and against incredible odds, manages to hit no one at all, we still find them guilty of reckless endangerment. The rare non-homicide doesn't conceal from us from the essential wrongness of the act.
But Ravi's case, and others like it, put us in a quandary. Despite what others have said, I don't believe what Ravi (right) did led inevitably to Clementi's suicide. We tend to think so because Clementi did in fact die, and what Ravi did is reprehensible and did in fact lead materially to Clementi's death. But to think that it was the unavoidable outcome of what Ravi did is to assume that his actions are as rare as Clementi's suicide, that whenever this kind of thing happens, we will hear of it. This strikes me as burying one's head in the sand. It's not appealing, because many of us really do want to blame Ravi, but one can't consistently believe both that Ravi inevitably caused Clementi's suicide, and that their situation is common.
But if the opposite is true, and similar situations are playing themselves out all the time (just with much lighter consequences), then what are we, as a society, to do with Ravi? What are we to do with anyone who does something criminal that then leads, against (let us say) hundred-to-one odds, to someone's death? Ostensibly, their actions put them in a lottery of sorts. We punish the lottery losers, and everyone else goes unscathed, perhaps even unnoticed.
Is this justice? Does the punishment really fit the crime, or is it more that it fits the consequences? If it fits the crime, what should we do about those who do not lead to any substantive damage? On a more abstract level, are we doing what we should to protect potential victims? Even from the point of view of American jurisprudence, in which the results matter, the situation is unclear. By throwing the book at Ravi, and missing the others, do we send the message that what Ravi did was wrong? Or do we just send the message that one just needs to avoid getting caught?
Someday, perhaps, situations like Ravi/Clementi will cease to happen. It seems unlikely to me, but just perhaps! But in the meantime, we must think hard about the consequences of punishing people for the results of their crimes, when those results are rare.