Society's Problem, Not Just Navy's

THE United States Navy can, must, and will absorb the criticism it has rightly received for the Tailhook scandal and emerge stronger, morally and militarily, from the ordeal.

One result to be hoped for is less machismo and more demonstration of real manhood and womanhood. The 1993 report on the debauchery during the 1991 Las Vegas meeting of US Navy and Marine aviators stated: "Tailhook '91 is the culmination of a long-term failure of leadership.... Senior aviation leadership seemed to ignore the deteriorating standards."

This is no doubt true. Perhaps as the Pentagon adopts a policy of allowing women in combat roles, which will enable them to rise higher in the chain of command, a heightened sensitivity to sexual assault will accompany them up through the ranks. But the onus for tolerance of, or ignorance of, the kind of behavior now exposed casts a shadow not only over the Navy, but on a society that has fallen prey to a multitude of dehumanizing influences.

A lot of those young, and perhaps not so young, naval aviators may have succumbed to the glamorizing of their mission and the mistaken impression that their special status - punishing themselves and their machines to the utmost limits - exempted them from the rules of common human dignity.

But children hardly old enough to ride a bicycle are exposed to, even bombarded with, notions, furnished chiefly by television, that condition them to tolerate outlandish behavior, poor taste, self-indulgence, and self-centeredness. This may seem a far cry from the intolerable shenanigans of a group of "top guns" whose hazardous military role induces them to feel they can breach the limits of human decency. But those influences should not be ignored.

The US Navy is going to fix its problem, even if it has to provide etiquette lessons along with training in rocket launching. Meanwhile, the rest of us should face up to the challenge of setting standards of conduct for our future fliers, teachers, and television producers - seeing that they get the right messages about the rights of others. It's not easy in a clamorous world, but it's easier to do now rather than when they're old enough to be fighter pilots.

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