In Anoka, Minn. — part of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) congressional district until district lines were redrawn after the 2010 census — nine adolescents have taken their own lives over the past two years. Students suffered homophobic bullying while their teachers and school administrators remained silent. A school district policy called “No Homo Promo” meant the faculty could have consequences for reaching out to persecuted students. Their stories are a poignant reminder that to be young and different in the United States can mean years of silent suffering. Terrible things happen when the politics of intolerance and revenge intersect with the short-sighted, cruel teen world.

When tragedy occurs we search for people to blame. Sometimes, that search produces clear evidence of wrongdoing and culpability. At other times, the search for responsibility leads to a tangle of interconnecting causes. In such cases, our institutions are rarely able to sort things out appropriately. Such is the case with the trial of Dharun Ravi, a former Rutgers University student whose roommate, Tyler Clementi, killed himself last fall.

A few days before Clementi died, Ravi had used a webcam to watch him embrace another man in the room they shared. Two days before Clementi took his own life, Ravi tried to watch another encounter between Clementi and the same man. Nothing was recorded; no one saw anything pornographic, and Clementi had been open about his sexual orientation before the webcam viewings. Press reports claimed that Ravi posted a compromising video to YouTube and outed Clementi — those reports were mistaken.

Activists who believed the inaccurate reports pressured New Jersey officials into charging Ravi with invasion of privacy and “bias intimidation,” a hate crime. Had Clementi not taken his own life, Ravi would almost certainly have been disciplined by Rutgers, not the state.

The claim that Ravi’s actions were motivated by homophobia rests on shaky ground. The most important evidence was his use of anti-gay slurs to insult heterosexual friends on Twitter and iChat — a far cry from the systematic abuse that “bias intimidation” was created to punish.

It’s almost impossible to understand what specific events motivate someone to take his or her own life. Most suicides take root in deep, long-term suffering — they are the result of abuse, depression or personal tragedy. In many cases, mental state matters more than individual events. Ravi is on trial because activists, the press and the state of New Jersey have assumed that the webcam incident, occurring days before Clementi died, was the cause of Clementi’s death. The facts that have been made public do not provide clear support for that thesis.

We should be wary of any explanation of a suicide that hinges on assumptions about the victim’s mental state. If Clementi had left a note saying that he had jumped from New York City’s George Washington Bridge because Ravi had spied on him, would it be trustworthy? How would we know that his transition to college, the stress of coming out to his family a few weeks prior or any of the other things that can happen to a young man in his first weeks away from home didn’t play into his unfortunate action? The lack of a convincing answer suggests that jailing his former roommate and possibly deporting his family — the Ravis are citizens of India — is the wrong response.

Implicit in the mistaken assumption that Clementi was ashamed of having been outed is a sad fact about life in America today: Millions of people are ashamed about who they are. That shame exists because of people like the preachers in Anoka who, on Sundays, teach the bigotry that students bring to school on Monday.

Unlike Clementi, the Anoka students who died suffered terrible, systematic abuse. They bore it for years while the school district kept its staff from doing anything to help. The Anoka students who abused others, the administrators who abetted them and the preachers who fostered a climate of hate should bear the blame. It was this climate of hate — not a single event — that drove the victims to despair. In a just world, those responsible would be punished, while those whose role is unclear, like Ravi, would not. In a better world, hatred wouldn’t exist at all, and none of these young people would have lost their lives.

Seth Soderborg can be reached at sethns@umich.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @thedailyseth.

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