In the latest U.S. Naval Academy scandal, everyone is a loser. Everyone is a victim and everyone is guilty. That assessment pretty much covers the four midshipmen involved -- three men and a woman -- whose lives are never going to be quite the same.
Blame the ubiquitous and insidious social network on which rumor instantly becomes fact and bragging is a way of life. Blame a change in morals. Blame the bad luck of being caught up in a public spotlight made considerably brighter by public demand for the military to end its history of sexual harassment and abuse. Blame a combination of these things, but most of all blame horrifically bad judgment by everyone who took part in an incident best described as a sordid cautionary tale.
Three former members of the academy's football team have been accused of raping the female midshipman at an April 2012 "yoga and toga" party at an off-campus "football house" in Annapolis, Md. Accounts about the incident -- including often-conflicting testimony -- emerged in an eight-day preliminary hearing that ended Sept. 3. A decision is pending on whether to court-martial the three men or drop the case.
The woman reportedly had arrived intoxicated and continued to drink so much that she became incapacitated and now says she had no recollection of the alleged assault. In fact, she said she learned about it afterward from a friend. Meanwhile, social network traffic gave some currency to the allegations.
When the case came to the attention of authorities at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the young woman was reluctant to cooperate for fairly obvious reasons, including fear that her mother would find out. At one point, she apparently became so upset she asked an alleged participant to lie about what had happened.
All this and more came out at the hearing, which the military calls an Article 32. The proceedings have sparked considerable criticism -- because the academy's superintendent, Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, will decide the outcome and because of the latitude given to defense attorneys in their lengthy cross-examination of the woman.
To call that questioning sensational is an understatement.
Attorneys for the three men asked the woman whether she wore underwear to the party, asked about her technique in oral sex, asked whether she had once apologized to another midshipman with whom she'd been intimate for "being a 'ho,' " and on and on. As is often the case in trying to refute rape allegations, the alleged victim becomes the target. It is a reason that thousands of these cases, including a huge number in the military, go unreported. Enduring such an attack on one's character and reputation and past behavior must be excruciating. At one point, the young woman pleaded for a recess, saying she was exhausted.
The trauma was compounded by the fact the entire hearing was reported in every detail.
No less a tragedy is the damage to the woman's alleged assailants, whether they must ultimately stand before a full court of military justice or not. While her identity generally has been withheld, their names have been spread about in a culture that still apparently believes a man can survive such an assault on his reputation far easier than a woman. It is an outdated concept that convicts him without a trial. Truth clearing him often fails to catch up with the allegation.
The accuser and the accused in this case are not just entering the rarefied atmosphere of the Annapolis institution, where only elite students are supposed to be admitted. They are upperclassmen nearing graduation; the discipline and maturity we expect from them to defend our nation should preclude such events.
It is difficult to defend the behavior of any of the four, and even more difficult to determine who is telling the truth about consent or lack of it.
On the block here is the affirmation or repudiation of whether an individual must take responsibility for his or her actions. No one seems to have done so in this incident. All four should be forced out of the academy.
Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.