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Terrorism of a Personal Kind

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The schoolyard bully used to work his fists. His target might go home with a black eye, but the bruise would eventually go away. Later in life, victim and victimizer might become friends.

Then came guns. Physical strength no longer mattered, and death would make healing impossible.

The weaponry has advanced further -- witness the shocking suicide of an 18-year-old student at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Tyler Clementi was known for his sweetness and violin-playing. His roommate, Dharan Ravi, and another freshman, Molly Wei, used a webcam on an open laptop to secretly capture Clementi having gay sex in his dorm room.

This was a live Internet video feed that Ravi advertised to followers on Twitter. A humiliated Clementi responded by writing a suicide note on his Facebook page and then jumping to his death off the George Washington Bridge.

Associated Press has found at least 12 cases of teenagers between 11 and 18 killing themselves as a result of cyber-cruelty. As communications technology has empowered terrorists, it has enabled young sadists to injure others without having to see the target's face.

Photographing someone in flagrante delicto used to require a certain amount of professionalism. A shakedown artist would hide behind a bedroom curtain and take shots of a couple (typically unmarried) in the act. The blackmailer would present the grainy photos to a victim, then demand payment for them and the negatives.

Now anyone can do this with a plain old laptop and while being somewhere else. Social media let total jerks terrorize others without even identifying themselves.

One of the most fiendish cases involved a woman in Missouri who mentally tortured a 13-year-old girl living down the street. Lori Drew, 47, pretended to be a boy, who after flirting with Megan Meier on MySpace for weeks, suddenly rebuffed her. Distraught from this imaginary rejection by someone she had never met, Megan hung herself in a closet.

Clementi's tormentors are now in deep trouble. Authorities in New Jersey have charged Ravi and Wei with invasion of privacy. They may be accused of a hate crime, though they've shown no particular animus against gay people.

Their Facebook friends (and lawyer) hold that the two thought they were merely committing a prank -- Ravi had actually liked Clementi. Though their conduct was appalling, there could be something in the argument that they hadn't expected events to turn so tragic. One clearly doesn't have to be young to show such dreadful judgment, but it helps.

The saddest part is that Clementi might have survived the crisis had he been older and more seasoned against hurt. A few more days to work through the calamity, especially with the help of others, might have pulled him through.

Is there a way to protect younger people from online creeps and from their own indiscretions?

One idea is to simply keep them off of social networking sites. But that's possible only for younger teens and children. Children in middle school or lower have no business joining any social networking site.

Another is to teach all users of this media that anything they put on the Internet can be seen by the entire world and forever. An e-mail message is not a foolish letter that can be retrieved and burned. Anything online is there for keeps.

Perhaps we all have to develop a thick skin for what others say about us in cyberspace. Almost everyone has a critic with a computer.

Finally, we all should understand that only constant vigilance will preserve our privacy. Chilling thought, but even a laptop sitting alone in a corner can be turned against us.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.              

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