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Army still not fluent in logic

By Stebbins Jefferson, Palm Beach Post Columnist
Saturday, November 23, 2002

Don't cut off your nose to spite your face.

Don't shoot yourself in the foot.

Don't swallow a horse and choke on a flea.

These common-sense maxims have been reverberating in my mind since I learned this week that the Army discharged nine student linguists. Six of them were studying Arabic, two were studying Korean, and one was studying Mandarin Chinese. These nine trainees were not booted out because they were failing course work or no longer wanted to serve or would deny our nation's defense their needed skills.

The reason for their ouster, dear friends, is something our government considers more daunting: The students are gay. Consequently, their disclosure of this personal information was considered sufficient reason to bury their human talents in the sand.

The "don't-ask, don't-tell" policy, which the Defense Department adopted during the Clinton administration, decrees that someone who admits to a homosexual orientation is unworthy to serve. Under that legal standard, one's sexual identity is more important than his or her honesty. Thus, hypocrisy is made rampant, supposedly to maintain military decorum. On that rock, the political powers would have us build a national defense. But enough philosophizing. Let's look at the facts.

At the elite Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., military personnel get training for a variety of sophisticated jobs requiring proficiency in foreign languages. The people selected for this duty have been carefully screened to be sure they have sufficient intelligence, loyalty and the specific skills needed to master a rigorous program. In the class for fiscal year 2002, 516 were approved to study. Only 365 graduated.

Two years ago, the National Commission on Terrorism reported that the United States is experiencing a "very severe" shortage of Arabic-fluent translators. This difficult-to-learn language requires at least two years of study for one to gain even modest proficiency, says Don Hamilton of the commission staff. Our national conscience should be chastened by the knowledge that after the terrorists bombed us with hijacked planes, intelligence officials discovered they had intercepted messages about the impending attacks but had been unable to read them due to a lack of available Arabic translators. Our vulnerability to terrorists cannot be reduced by policing private sexual activity for purposes of persecution.

For the record, none of the students the Army discharged was caught engaging in sexual acts. A couple of them were dismissed for visiting each other after curfew, but such an offense likely would have brought lighter punishment had the two been heterosexual. Over several months, the other seven linguists, concerned about harassment and hostility at the institute, voluntarily disclosed their sexual orientation, creating an irrational but legal cause for their dismissal.

Around the world, 23 militaries -- many of which we depend upon as allies -- have lifted their bans on gays. The terrorist threats we face demand that the Pentagon do the same. We can begin by acknowledging that gays always have served in our military, just as they always have worked in every field of endeavor --- the arts, business, government. We routinely have accepted the contributions of gay men and lesbians and benefited from their talents, even as we judged their sexual orientation to be more important than their humanity. Selective acceptance or rejection of gay citizens who want to serve in the military squanders human potential.

If our nation is to defeat terrorism, we will have to use all our human resources without regard to race, creed, color, gender or sexual orientation. Our defense needs dictate that our government give priority to the proposition that since all human beings are equal before the law, enforcing the personal prejudices of individual citizens is not a proper duty of government. For our general welfare and common defense, what we have refused to do for altruistic reasons we must now do for pragmatic reasons of self-preservation.

It is too late to save those killed on Sept. 11, 2001. We can reasonably speculate that the thousands who died could have been saved if we had had more fluent interpreters monitoring the conversations of our enemies. How many more must die for us to learn that discrimination kills not just bodies but souls?

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