That's the first of many lessons we are likely to derive from the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi this past September 22.
If allegations made by local law enforcement officials are correct, Clementi's tragic death followed the filming and webcasting of a sexual encounter involving Clementi and another person in a college dorm room. It's alleged that two Rutgers students, Dharun Ravi, Clementi's roommate, and Molly Wei, had a moment when they made a horrible decision, with apparently tragic consequences.
Actually, there were several moments of decision for the two students. The first was the moment when they decided whether or not to violate Clementi's privacy by filming his sexual encounter. The other came when they decided to exponentially escalate this violation by posting the footage on the Internet.
There's no way of knowing whether Ravi and Wei--again if the allegations are true--would either have filmed Clementi's encounter or posted it on the web had Clementi's sexual partner been a woman instead of a man. But people so heedless of another person's humanity as to display that person's intimate acts on the Internet likely wouldn't care whether the filmed intimacies were heterosexual or homosexual.
What does appear to be true though, is that, at some level Clementi felt shamed by the brutal video outing to which he was subjected. No one can force another person to take the tragic decision to end their own life, of course. But who can know what agony Clementi felt after his sexual encounter was made accessible to the whole wired world? Who of us, but for a few exhibitionists, would want our sexual encounters made public, even if those encounters took place within the sanctioned bounds of holy matrimony?
Clementi's agony is something that the alleged filmers and posters of Clementi's encounter can be blamed for causing. No matter what happens in the criminal proceedings that ensue, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is right in saying that Clementi's suicide is a memory with which Ravi and Wei will live for the rest of their lives.
And all of these events were triggered by a few moments, moments when one student might have said to the other, "Should we film this guy having sex? Should we put it on the Internet?" They were moments when one or the other might have said, "No. Not such a good idea." But, if the allegations are true, that isn't how their conversation went.
Instead, it seems, they found the possibilities too delicious to avoid. Rudimentary ethics appear to have been lost on them.
In their moments of decision, they might, for example, have recalled hearing somewhere from somebody, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."*
They might have recalled that simply because a person has the power to do something--and the Internet has put enormous power to boost or destroy the reputations of other human beings into the hands of individual people--doesn't mean that it has to be done.
They could have thought to show restraint. They could have considered demonstrating some charity and compassion.
But, if the allegations are true, none of these thoughts or impulses seemed to cross the minds or enter the discussions of Ravi and Wei. Of course, the two of them are old enough to make informed decisions about their actions. They're not juveniles. But it makes one wonder what ethics the two were taught at home.
It makes one wonder, too, how all of us are helping young people to prepare for handling the power of the Internet.
It makes one wonder if our culture, or significant pieces of it, teaches all of us to regard others as bit players in our lives, in our stories, if our "pursuit of happiness" society teaches us to see other people as props to be used by us and then, disposed of at will.
It's possible that Ravi and Wei really did have such a thoughtless view of Clementi--as simply disposable and of no consequence, not because of his sexuality, but because of their own narcissism. Beyond Clementi's death, it's this possibility that I find most chilling in this whole parade of sad, pathetic, consequential moments.
Ravi and Wei may have brought no moral compass to their moments of decision, no values, no respect for other human beings, however different from themselves they may have thought Clementi to be. All they brought were a webcam, an Internet connection, and a pair of psychic mirrors in which they could, like Narcissus, watch themselves and, in this case, see themselves laughing at someone else's expense.
Whatever moral deficiencies Ravi and Wei may have brought to their moments of decision, the laughing has ended now. So has the life of Tyler Clementi.
Moments matter. They matter a lot.
*Every major religious system in the world contains this notion as articulated by Jesus. Christians, of course, contend that it wasn't unique teaching that distinguished Jesus, but instead, among other things, His death on the cross for human sin and His resurrection from the dead as confirmation of His power over death and His power to give life to those with faith in Him.