One of the most shocking sights from the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks was not a building crumbling, a crowd fleeing or a woman caked in dust. Rather, it was a headline crawling across the bottom of the screen on an all-news channel. In the face of a coming war against Middle Eastern terrorist groups, it said, the U.S. government was looking to hire Arabic speakers.
Even measured against the unremitting fear of those days, that headline was like a splash of cold water. I mean, you assume that the richest and most powerful nation on Earth must have on speed dial any number of people who are fluent in the languages of our enemies. Then you look up one day, and there's a glorified Help Wanted ad: Arabic speakers needed. Apply within.
So when news comes, as it did this week, that the Army has given the boot to seven such people, you figure they must have committed some heinous transgression to be shown the door in a time of critical need.
Were they spies? you wonder. Were they murderers? Were they deserters? Nope. They were gay.
This, according to Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington-based support organization for military men and women who run afoul of the Pentagon's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Steve Ralls, a spokesman for the 9-year-old group, says two other linguists, both specialists in Korean, also were dismissed.
According to Ralls, two of the nine were inadvertently outed while the other seven decided separately to reveal their sexual orientation as a matter of conscience. "They made statements informing their command that they wanted to continue serving, but that they wanted to do so as openly gay and lesbian service members."
You can guess how well that little request went over. All seven were discharged between August and October.
The message is unmistakable: We find gay people more frightening than Osama bin Laden, whose stated goal is our destruction. And then there's North Korea, whose statements on its nuclear weapons program might summarized as follows: "We have no nukes. We definitely have no nukes. Oh, wait, we have nukes."
Gay people scare us more than that, too, I suppose.
You wonder why some hostile nation doesn't just drop homosexuals on us from the air. And I don't even want to know how much money and time were invested in training the vital human resources we just threw away.
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" always seemed like a weasely compromise brokered by a president who lacked the spine to remind the military that it answered to him and not the other way around. Now the policy seems flat-out dangerous, removing from service people whose expertise we desperately need.
For the record, the president who agreed to the dubious compromise was also fond of reminding us that, "We don't have a person to waste." It's an admonition that seems especially timely in an era of war.
Because what's truly frightening here is not the idea of gay linguists working for the Army. Rather, it's the idea that so-called terrorist "chatter" might someday produce evidence of a specific and credible threat against U.S. interests that goes undetected because the nation doesn't have enough linguists of whatever sexual orientation.
So I guess the "Help Wanted" sign goes back up. And a military that still doesn't understand the language of its enemies can feel secure that at least it has defended. . . well, whatever principle it thinks it's defending here.
I can't help thinking that none of this had to be. I admire the integrity of those who felt called by conscience to reveal their sexual orientations to their commanding officers. On the other hand, they'd probably still be employed if they had done so in Arabic.