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Internet Vigilantism & Steubenville

Reading The Atlantic’s roundup of the latest in the Steubenville high school football team rape case, I watched the 12-minute video in which Michael Nodianos, a recent Steubenville grad, and former player for its football team, drunkenly mocks the alleged rape victim on what appears to be the night of the alleged rape. You can see […]

Reading The Atlantic’s roundup of the latest in the Steubenville high school football team rape case, I watched the 12-minute video in which Michael Nodianos, a recent Steubenville grad, and former player for its football team, drunkenly mocks the alleged rape victim on what appears to be the night of the alleged rape. You can see it at the bottom of the Atlantic link. It’s not pornographic — you don’t see the alleged victim or anything — but it is revolting stuff. My first thought while watching it was, “What if this were my daughter this jackass is talking about?” And my second thought was, “What if this vile young man was my son?”

The first is more horrible to contemplate than the second, of course, but not by much. The idea that one of my sons could possibly have participated in a gang rape, and without question joked about the deed afterward, in such an unbelievably cruel way, is devastating to contemplate. What a complete failure of manhood, of character, and of basic human decency Michael Nodianos is. His parents ought to be horrified. If authorities can prove this lout participated in a rape, I hope they throw the book at him. If not, it may be a sufficient punishment that this video will live on the Internet forever, and one day, his wife and children will be able to see it.

Or is that too much? I’m not sure. My TAC colleague Scott Galupo tweeted earlier today:

Completely agree. Watching the boys on that clip is like looking into another world. I wasn’t exactly a goody-goody in high school, but I don’t think I even knew boys who talked and thought and behaved like that. One day, if they’re lucky, these boys will look back on this in shame, sorrow, and repentance. There’s a part of me that feels pity for Nodianos, because no matter how deep his repentance, and how much he does to repair the damage he has done, because of the Internet, his future children will always be able to see their father online at his worst. If you don’t find that to be rather monstrous, you aren’t thinking about it deeply enough.

God forgives, but the Internet is without mercy.

Which brings me to a broader point. The Nodianos video was unearthed and publicized by Anonymous, the Internet hacker collective, which has gotten involved in the Steubenville case because its members believe — with good reason — that powerful people in the Steubenville community are conspiring to cover up a gang rape, because it involves their sons and/or members of the high school football team. It’s a pretty good bet that if not for the Internet, and the outrage that the Steubenville rape case and alleged cover-up would not have blown up like it has. If — as Anonymous, in its “Steubenville Files” posting, and others allege — powerful people in the Steubenville people are working together to make this thing go away, then one has to be grateful to Internet activists for attempting to hold them accountable.

But what if the activists are wrong? Anonymous has released, or has threatened to release, a massive amount of information about people in Steubenville, including people who may have had nothing at all to do with the alleged rape and cover-up. The feminist writer Amanda Marcotte is made queasy by this:

Anonymous has been vital in getting out at least some of the evidence of the assault to the media. As the group shows no signs of slowing down the hacking, this is a story that could very well develop further. But the role Anonymous now plays in this case is certainly hard to reconcile, morally.

As some initial gleeful Twitter responses from students to the alleged rape demonstrate, one reason rape continues is that communities not only don’t hold perpetrators responsible, but close ranks to defend or even celebrate them. By stepping in and holding people accountable, Anonymous stands a very good chance of taking action that actually does something to stop rape. But: This type of online vigilante justice is potentially invading the privacy of or defaming innocent Steubenville residents, and even if everything published is true, there are very serious legal limits to the Anonymous strategy. Not all of the leaked allegations are attached to Twitter or YouTube accounts—many of the most serious cover-up claims, which we won’t reprint here, are at this point only rumor. The allegations will infuriate you, but they don’t rise to the level of real evidence that can be used to truly hold responsible those who participate in sex crimes.

She’s right. Among other things, Anonymous threatens to release the Social Security numbers of all the faculty at the local high school unless the alleged rapists and the alleged cover-up conspirators apologize. How on earth does that kind of blackmail forward the cause of justice? How does making the ninth-grade English teacher vulnerable to identity theft hold purported rapists and their enablers to account? Where are the checks on Anonymous?

I know the temptation to vigilantism. I dealt with it a lot years ago, when I was writing about the Catholic sex abuse scandal. There were things I was 99 percent sure were true, but hadn’t been reported, that I was tempted to write, because I believed not doing so was allowing bad men to get away with crime. People — priests and laymen — would contact me and dump information on me about other priests, or bishops, and their alleged involvement in child sex abuse and/or a coverup of same. Many of these people were telling the truth, I believed. But they could not or would not produce documentation — documentation did not exist in most of these cases — or put their name to their accusation.

I understood why. The most haunting conversation I had with a source was with a woman who told a grotesque story of clerical sex abuse and blackmail — things she claimed to have seen when she was working in a particular parish — but said she couldn’t go public because she worked for a Catholic school, and would probably lose her job if she spoke out. Over the days I was trying to convince her to go public, I checked out as many of the details of her story as I could manage — and indeed, she seemed to be telling me the truth. The priest she accused had gone to prison for an unrelated sex abuse case. The reason she contacted me, she said, was because she said she and others had gone to the then-bishop (a bishop who was still active at the time, but who is now retired, by the way) to report the priest’s activities, but learned later that the criminal priest was blackmailing the bishop with knowledge of the bishop’s sexual misconduct.

I could not prove that this was true. I believed it was true, and do believe it was true. But I could not convince this frightened woman to come forward. Her husband had left her, and she said she was the only support for her children. She had to have that job. I understood her position.

This sort of thing happened more than a few times. I’m fortunate to have been bound by libel laws, because my emotions ran very, very high during all that, and I could easily have talked myself into posting information about alleged abusers that might have been false. To be sure, I never would have posted anything that I wasn’t convinced was true. But how could I know for sure? I believed the woman in the case I bring up here was telling me the truth, based on our long conversations, but that was a judgment call. She might have been playing me. This is why it was so important to have documents, and/or people willing to make their accusations on the record. You never really know the truth, and your emotions are never a good indicator. Even when you think you’re seeing things coldly and clinically, your emotions unavoidably frame your judgment.

I’m confident that I had information back then that would have helped achieve justice for innocent victims, if only in the court of public opinion, had I published it. But in the absence of other evidence, and witnesses willing to go public with what they saw, there was a non-trivial chance that these allegations were half-truths, or outright lies. So I didn’t write, and I’m glad I didn’t write, even if my hesitation allowed some bad guys to get away with it.

I wish I could say it was pure professionalism and a sense of moral responsibility that caused me to stay my writing hand in every case. Sometimes it was, but in the really hard cases, it was libel law that did it. Maybe libel law protected the guilty, but it’s possible that it protected the innocent from false accusation. It certainly protected me from my own ungoverned passion for righteousness, which might have destroyed somebody else, as well as my own career, and, in a libel judgment, the journals for which I worked during those years.

Again, I think — think — that Anonymous is doing some good in this Steubenville case, but I know that they have a Ring of Power, and I have no faith that it will ultimately be used for good. If nobody knows who they are, they cannot be held accountable — not even to themselves.

I find that Nodianos kid’s behavior on that video to be despicable, and I think justice has been served by making that clip public. But that clip will still be there 20 years from now, and 40 years from now. No matter how much good Nodianos does from here on out, his grave sin will always be a matter of public record, and there for his children and grandchildren to see. Justice without the prospect of mercy is a terrible thing.