Who Will Protect Us from Our Protectors?

ELLEN GOODMAN

April 29, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- The report begins with a table of contents unmatched in the annals of military manuals. There is a section on Indecent Assaults. Another on Indecent Exposure. A third labeled Other Improper Conduct.

To get a taste of Tailhook all you have to do is read the subheads: Gantlet. Streaking. Leg Shaving. Butt biting. Zapping. The taste you get is raunchy and sour.

But to get the full flavor of the Tailhook convention of 1991, you have to read every word, follow the investigators through the rubble of what was called later a ''free fire zone.'' Only then, as layer upon layer is exposed, analyzed and numbered do you get the cumulative effect of the information.

Maybe it happens finally in Appendix F, somewhere between the testimony of Victim Number One who was bitten on the buttocks and Victim Number 90 whose breast was grabbed. Or maybe it happens in Appendix E, when they tally up the bar tab or the damage bill on every suite on the infamous third floor. The Total Cost of Suite Damage to Room 303: $1,316.

Then too there are the pie charts dividing victims into categories: six military wives, 21 female Naval officers, 49 civilians. And of course there are photographs, a man with a rhino hat, another in the T-shirt with ''Women are Property'' printed on the back. On the front it read ''He-man Women's Hater's Club.''

The report is not without its moments of comic relief. It includes, for example, the Tailhook Association's own description of the three-day debacle: ''By the time the event ended with a farewell brunch on Sunday morning, the Tailhook Association knew to a certainty that the Naval Aviation Symposium had realized its full potential.''

But it is most certainly not humorous reading. It was released last Friday in the hope, no doubt, that the outrage would subside over a weekend. Reading it at one sitting, however, it occurred to me that my own outrage must have peaked some months ago when Lt. Paula Coughlin first described the gantlet she ran while her peers and colleagues grabbed at her body. This time I felt only gloom.

Two sentences stay in my mind. At one point, the investigators write, ''Navy and Marine Corps aviation officers are well-educated, physically fit, technically proficient and well-trained.'' These were the best and the brightest who should have known better.

At another point they note, almost in an aside, that 30 aviation officers died in flying-related accidents in the year after Tailhook. Those who do this work are not without courage.

The sorry fact is that the men who committed these Indecent Assaults and Indecent Exposures and Other Improper Conduct are special men who have done very special damage to their institution. And they are not alone.

It seems that in the past year, almost every major institution has been wounded by the exposure of some male authority figure. Most often by the sexual misuse of power.

In the Roman Catholic Church, a former priest, James Porter, stands accused of molesting dozens of children as the church moved him anyway from one parish to another. In the judiciary, the respected chief judge of New York state's highest court, Sol Wachtler, pleaded guilty to extorting money and threatening his former lover and her teen-age daughter. The Senate is still trying to deal with the sorry tale of Sen. Robert Packwood.

The clergy, the Congress, the military, the judiciary. None of these institutions that together form the establishment has been untouched. Each has been challenged.

The revelations are long overdue. The military and the church were each set up to defend and take care of us in their own ways. But it's not uncommon for protection to become a protection racket. For a long time, there was an implicit deal that said men's jobs were more important than women's bodies. We protected institutions so we could believe that they protected us. It doesn't work like that anymore. Women don't work like that anymore.

What has been lost in these actions and revelations is trust and, I suppose, respect. What has been lost, especially for young boys, I fear, is the belief in a male ethic of protecting others. A belief in male authority as good authority.

In 1991, the report tells us, many of the men attending Tailhook after the Persian Gulf War regarded themselves as ''returning heroes.'' Their heroism got lost somewhere on the third floor between Victim Number One and Victim Number 90.

It's going to take time to get the muck of Tailhook off the top guns.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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