In 1998 while working as a reporter in Oregon, I wrote about the rising trend toward younger, more violent criminal offenders. "We've been warned that we are going to be dealing with a whole generation of kids without a conscience," said Maj. Larry Rowan, the county jailer. "The basic stuff we were all born with, that makes you feel bad when you do wrong—they don't have it."
I thought of that comment after hearing about the suicide of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi. The Rutgers University freshman jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, 18, and friend Molly Wei, 18, reportedly secretly filmed Clementi engaging in a sexual encounter with another male.
Ravi then allegedly posted a link to his Twitter account, providing a live feed from the hidden web-cam. Twitter accounts can and often are linked directly to Facebook pages, granting access to friends and gawkers near and far.
Shortly before his death, Clementi posted a message to his own Facebook account for all the world to see: "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry."
Wei and Ravi are now facing charges of invasion of privacy. There are some, myself included, who wish the two were facing manslaughter charges. Although the third-degree offenses could earn them five years in prison, the media campaign to exonerate the guilty is already under way.
Wei and Ravi's lawyers claim that this was no hate crime. Ravi, his friends say, is an open-minded fellow. Wei's lawyers say she is the one who has been treated wrongly. This, they say, is nothing more than a bad prank gone awry. Boredom turned to horrordom.
I'm not buying it. Wei and Ravi aren't 13-year-old punks clawing for bragging rights in the junior-high lunch room. They are students at one of the nation's most notable schools. A basic four-year education at Rutgers runs upward of $100,000 or more. It has been reported that Ravi had a near perfect SAT score.
Any kid capable of writing an essay that grants them entrance into Rutgers knows the difference between a prank and invasion of privacy. But then, maybe Maj. Rowan had it right to begin with. Maybe Wei and Ravi lack that basic stuff you and I were born with, the thing that makes you feel bad when you do wrong: a conscience.
A generation or two ago, Hopi Indians refused to have their pictures taken. They believed that a person who could capture their image could take their soul hostage as well. Maybe there is more truth than superstition to the Hopi way. Perhaps the reason Clementi felt he had to end his life is because Ravi and Wei had already taken his soul. A sacred part of our humanity has been breached and our young are cannibalizing one another as a result.
Contributing to this flagrant disregard for the sacredness of another person's soul is Mark Zuckerberg. Zuck, as he is known, is the mastermind behind the social networking site Facebook.
Zuck made headlines a couple of weeks ago when he donated $100 million to the public schools in Newark, New Jersey. His camp denies it, but Zuck's donation, grand as it was, is a preemptive strike—an attempt to downplay the negative portrayal of Zuck in the new film biopic The Social Network, a fictional account based largely in truth, court documents, interviews, and such.
I saw the movie and it has cost me several hours of restless sleep ever since. I'm conflicted. There are many things that I enjoy about Facebook. It grants me access to a wider audience, allows me to keep in touch with my friends across the nation on a more regular basis, and helps me feel like I'm part of a community of people who care.
On the other hand, it is intrusive and deceptive and growing even more so, as this Rutgers incident shows. The lie is found in this false sense of intimacy it provides. Facebook was the community that Tyler Clementi turned in those desperate last moments of his life.
He didn't call a friend in the neediest hours of his short life.
He Facebooked them.
Zuckerberg has been forthright about what he considers to be the mission of Facebook: "to make the world more open." What value, if any, such false openness or outright intrusion of privacy has for the citizens of the world is yet to be evaluated. But the value of all that openness for Zuck can be counted in dollars, billions of them, as advertisers circle round us Facebook users like turkey buzzards feasting on road kill.
Zuckerberg defines himself as an atheist and, whether it is his youth or his arrogance, he attaches little, if any value, to protecting the privacy of others.
In a widely circulated IM exchange he had while still a student at Harvard, Zuckerberg reveals his disdain for those who blindly trust him:
ZUCK: if you ever need info about anyone at harvard
ZUCK: just ask
ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns
FRIEND: what!? how'd you manage that one?
ZUCK: people just submitted it
ZUCK: i don't know why
ZUCK: they "trust me"
Money and an orange jumpsuit are the only things that separate Zuck, Ravi, and Wei from those young violent offenders I first wrote about back in 1998.
What good is a more open world that allows, perhaps even encourages, us to act out in more inhumane ways?
Karen Spears Zacharias is an author, essayist, commentator, and popular speaker. She has written for Her.meneutics about Anne Rice and Christopher Hitchens, and can be reached via Twitter @karenzach. This post originally appeared at Patheos.