Rejecting Aggression

AN American sailor, Terry Helvey, who savagely beat to death a homosexual shipmate, Allen Schindler, last October in a Japanese restroom, has been sentenced to life in prison by a military jury in Yokosuka. The sentence was quick, decisive, and appropriate.

Discrimination against or attacks on someone perceived as a member of a group identified by a single factor - in this case sexual orientation, but in other cases because of color, gender, age, ethnicity, disability, religion, or regional origin - are anathema in a progressive democratic society.

The notion that individuals or groups can unleash aggression against those they may perceive as inferior, different, vulnerable - or, ironically and simultaneously, a "threat" - cannot be allowed.

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The military is now a place where events are compelling society to consider policies governing the treatment of targeted groups.

The Tailhook scandal has demonstrated that a tolerance for gross sexual behavior based on a predatory male model (thought lamentably imitated by women too in this incident) has been allowed alongside the Navy's highest traditions of public service and patriotism.

It is frequently claimed by the defense in discriminatory cases that the condition of the attacked - again race, gender, disability, perceived sexual orientation, age - is somehow provocative. Or it is said that an individual's latent tendency to anger (the convicted sailor) or a pack psychology (Tailhook) can be triggered by such factors. These assertions are neither true nor exonerating. The individual or group must discipline its own aggressions and not transfer responsibility to the victim.

At the moment Congress and the military are attempting to respond to President Clinton's injunction to end discrimination against gays in the military. This process, involving hearings, discussion, and public debate, has, for all the emotion this question evokes, been generally constructive. The process by which these decisions are made deserves patience, careful thought, and a supportive body politic. The more sensitive an issue, the more that calm and reason are required to reach a just conclusion.

Violent aggression often is but the outward sign of a society's inner turmoil. This would attach itself to, or stigmatize, those perceived as "different" and thereby targetable.

We all, however, deserve the dignity, care, and respect of our basic identity as creations of God. Society and its institutions must learn how to accomplish this end.

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