Dharun Ravi, Raymond Kelly, and the US state: one man’s spying is another man’s leadership

Apologies for having been missing for a few weeks. Learning—re-learning–a language seems to have rendered me mute in English. There is also the added issue of reading, comprehending, and digesting the news in another language that seems to make it more difficult than usual to have anything to say with accuracy, precision, or confidence.

I have been tempted to return to the page after reading about the verdict in the Dharun Ravi trial. Ravi was convicted on 15 counts of hate crimes. Without challenging the verdict, I wonder again about some of the ironies, some of the hypocrisies that this case exposes. I wonder about the irony between the conviction of Ravi and the exaltation of the United States government and the New York Police Department, which has engaged—en masse—in similar actions for 11 years (or 9 years in the case of the NYPD). In the former case, the action of spying on someone whom one doesn’t know, doesn’t like, doesn’t understand—is described as immoral, intimidating, and an action that emerges from “hate” of the person who was spied upon. Yet, the description of a state, of a military, of a municipal police force which engages in similar actions for identical reasons—is that they are engaging in spying for the purposes of “protection,” “security,” i.e. to root out and scrutinize the unknown element in their midst.

Apparently, we can recognize that the inability to manage one’s own “hate,” “threats,” or fear of the unknown is a personal moral failing that has legal consequences. But when an institution (such as a state), composed of multiple persons with authority, with power, expresses similar sentiments, this is recognized as a kind of heroic measure to protect a country. Notice the lack of contrition in Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s comments or Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s defense of the NYPD. The practices of the US government and the NYPD’s surveillance are not recognized, as in the case of Dharun Ravi towards Tyler Clementi, as the unrestrained, unaccountable practice of acting out one’s fears in an irresponsible way.

We can go even further: the state’s predilection to survey those whom it feels threatens “its people” is a racist, xenophobic practice that has done more unspeakable damage to the ability to cultivate intimacy, hospitality, the “amicalement” of community, than the presence of immigrants or religious fundamentalists can do by itself. We know that after the events of 9-11, residents innumerable communities came together, helped each other, and saw each other in their humanity. Were there stories of the fear of the unknown? Yes. We heard many stories of the murders of brown men like Balbir Singh Sodhi, of the harassment of children, women, and men alike for being dark, migrants, Muslims. But we also know of Peaceful Tomorrows, the organization formed by the families of the victims of 9-11 to challenge, among other things, the racial profiling of Muslims. The harassment of Muslims was not the rule until the state explicitly approved the isolationism of Muslim men, the surveilling of religious and ethnic communities, and the torture of men with Muslim names.

We know that the state leads by example, and it has led unrepentantly by approving the surveillance of “suspected terrorists,” without evidence, without charges, and without accountability. If the state’s unrepentant example is to insist that profiling—a tactic that we know does more to cause fear, suspicion and hostility than it does to actually catch terrorists or criminals—then I wonder why Dharun Ravi is guilty of a hate crime, of intimidation, when the state is valorized for “protecting its own.”

To be clear, I don’t exculpate Ravi. Still, it is surprising to see where the lines are drawn between immoral acts, quotidian practices, and heroic moments. Both Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi were around 10 years old when 9/11 occurred. They presumably came of consciousness in an epoch where surveillance was the norm, and the honeymoon sex videos of Tommy and Pamela were readily accessible, and the bare-breasted orgies of college students on spring break in Florida or at Mardi Gras in New Orleans are a few clicks away, where Facebook shows millions of pictures of drunken encounters. Some of these may have been consensual, many others were not. Adults have lost their jobs because of them; students have had college admissions rescinded because of them. And yet, the question still arises about how to distinguish between the “hate” of a young migrant male directed toward another young gay male, and the “acts of security” of a state directed toward immigrants, religious communities, and dissidents.

Are younger adults accustomed to having every act filmed? Where do they draw the line between quotidian spying and the unspeakable violation of privacy? Do they feel, as I have been informed repeatedly, that those who have nothing to hide will not mind the pervasive invasion of privacy? Even many of us who “have nothing to hide,” are troubled by the state’s practice of surveillance. How do I reconcile the insistence that “those who have nothing to hide will not mind,” with the violation of the privacy of Tyler Clementi. Surely, he had nothing to hide—he told his parents that he was gay shortly before he started his freshman year at Rutgers. But he wished, presumably to have the dignity to keep his intimate relationships confidential and to share his sexuality with others of his own choosing. Ravi, on the other hand, assumed that spying on another, inviting others to spy on him, was harmless.

In this Ravi was wrong, but in this, Ravi followed the lead of the state. Shouldn’t the state, in the personages of G.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzalez, Barack Obama, Eric Holder, Raymond Kelly, Michael Bloomberg also be charged with hate crimes?


Author: Falguni A. Sheth

I'm a philosopher and political analyst who writes about all kinds of things, from national security, US politics, race, terrorism, miscegenation, feminism, philosophy, and whatever else captivates my attention. My views are idiosyncratic. I'd like to believe they're carefully considered, and I'm not particularly interested in following crowds.

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