How Can Mids Steal and Remain Mids?

COMMENT

April 30, 1995|By LIZ ATWOOD

A police report from the U.S. Naval Academy reveals that more than $70,000 worth of goods was stolen from the midshipmen's dormitory last year.

I wonder what Daniel Vincent Gallery's dad would have said about that.

Daniel Gallery was a member of the Naval Academy's class of 1920. A year before he graduated, he and his father got into an argument over the young Gallery's mediocre performance at school.

The midshipman's grades were slipping and although he had promised his father he would do better, he didn't.

His father wrote him a letter and called him a "bum that was completely lacking in all principles of manhood."

His son defended himself: "I have been lazy as far as studies are concerned, but no one can say I have been a bum in other respects. I may be a damn fool for letting my opportunities slide by, but a damned fool can have a lot of manhood in him."

I felt kind of sorry for Midshipman Gallery. He may not have been devoted to the books, but he seemed like a good kid. I think his old man was being too hard on him.

If Mr. Gallery was calling his son a bum for poor grades, I expect that the words he would have used to describe the thieves at the Naval Academy's Bancroft Hall would be unprintable.

The merchandise stolen last year included computer equipment, compact discs, money and jewelry.

Only a few of the cases have been solved. The Naval Academy disciplined several civilian employees and two midshipmen for stealing.

Three mids actually were accused -- two for allegedly using stolen telephone calling cards and another for allegedly stealing money.

But one of those accused of using the calling cards left the academy before being disciplined. The other two were punished, but not expelled.

Theft, of course, is a violation of the Naval Academy's Honor Code, which states that a midshipman will not "lie, cheat or steal."

But academy officials said that only a few mids have ever been expelled for stealing.

Maybe I simply don't know all the particulars. Maybe there are good reasons. But I can't understand how a midshipman could (( be found guilty of stealing and not be expelled.

A Naval Academy spokesman said their punishment was severe.

Did that mean extra push-ups? Cleaning toilets with a toothbrush? Lost leave privileges?

Whatever the punishment, anything short of expulsion flies in the face of the honor code's clear precept. When it says that midshipmen do not lie, cheat or steal, that should mean a person caught doing any of those things will no longer be a midshipman.

The academy's leadership was roundly criticized for the uneven justice dispensed in the cheating scandal of December 1992.

The academy investigated 134 midshipmen for cheating on an electrical engineering final and 81 eventually confessed. But only 24 were expelled. Another 64 midshipmen received a lesser punishment. The rest were exonerated.

Some were able to avoid expulsion because academy officials weighed the honor code violation against the mids' past record at the academy. The brightest and most dedicated midshipmen were let off the hook while those with less-stellar records at the academy were expelled.

Some would argue that this is only fair. Why expel a good student for one mistake?

But to expel some students for cheating while allowing others to remain implies that there are different degrees of honor. I'm not sure that's true.

I'll concede that there are different degrees of lying and cheating.

We all lie. Sometimes we lie to spare feelings, as when a co-worker wearing a really hideous dress asks us what we think, and we say, "Looks fine." A lie, but no harm done. A colleague's feelings are spared, an awkward silence at the water fountain is avoided.

Almost everyone cheats. The teen-age cashier at Dunkin' Donuts hands you back 98 cents change instead of 88 cents and you don't bother to tell him the difference. A little dishonest, but nothing to lose sleep over, right?

So I'm willing to concede that there might have been different levels of guilt in the cheating scandal. The midshipman who stole the test committed a worse offense than one who overheard mids discussing questions from the test.

I know that during the cheating scandal the Naval Academy was chided for falling into relativism. Given our society today, it's easy to see how it happened. These days we can find an excuse for even the most atrocious behavior. After repeated exposure to lies and cheating, we have developed a sort of immunity to dishonor.

But stealing? Can there be degrees of stealing? That seems pretty cut and dried. A person takes something that doesn't belong to him, whether the item taken is a CD or a computer, it's a theft, all of which seem equally reprehensible to me.

We may not always punish people for lying and cheating, but we still put people in jail for stealing.

Stealing is wrong. It's intolerable in society. It certainly should be intolerable in the living quarters of the men and women who will be called upon to defend our country.

Stated plainly, a thief is a bum.

I'm sure old Mr. Gallery would agree.

Liz Atwood is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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