Navy attempts to cover its Tailhook are unraveling, much to the embarrassment of big brass who were only too willing to look the other way when they first heard that 26 women, including 14 Navy officers, were manhandled (we use the term advisedly) at a raucous naval aviators convention in Las Vegas last September.
Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III has resigned, as well he should, both because he was personally nearby, if unawares, when the brawl took place and because he was responsible for an investigation that now looks suspiciously like a cover-up. The Tailhook Association, an organization of retired and active duty Navy pilots, is so named after the mechanism that brings incoming planes to a halt on carrier decks.
What now needs to be halted is a macho culture that considers sexual harassment something that happens to females who ask for it or have no business in the armed forces anyway. Adm. Frank B. Kelso, chief of naval operations, has asserted the Navy has "zero tolerance" for such behavior and warned that those found culpable in the Las Vegas affair will be discharged. He has ordered indoctrination training, under the title "Not in This Navy," throughout the service.
All this smacks of belated damage control -- of an official crackdown only because Congress is outraged and one woman shoved through the gantlet of drunken grabbers and squeezers has come forward by name to lay her complaints personally before President Bush, a World War II Navy flier.
Just as the Naval Academy was jolted when a female midshipman was chained to a urinal last year, so the entire Navy deserves to be shocked into a reexamination of its basic attitudes and traditions by the Tailhook outrage. The assaults were civil crimes as well as violations of Navy regulations punishable not only by discharge but by sentences to hard labor. In the end, it should be the brig or Nevada's jails.
The Navy's all-male tradition dies hard, not least among men who resent the exclusion of women from tough combat-ship duty -- an exclusion many Navy women have long been fighting.
Last year, under prodding by Rep. Beverly B. Byron, D-Md., Congress removed legal restrictions on women in aerial combat. But Defense Secretary Dick Cheney bucked the emotional issue to a presidential commission due to report Nov. 15 -- after the election. In retrospect, this proved to be an unfortunate signal, one from which the brawlers at Tailhook drew all the wrong inferences.
Sexual harassment? Not in this Navy? Oh no?