Now that the Don Imus flameout has once again demonstrated that vile words energize many activist groups and many media more than do devastating deeds, it is useful to revisit this strange dimension of public furor.
The latest three word outburst in Mr. Imus’ practice of sexist and racist remarks may be compared with the continuing sexist and racist behaviors that civic opponents would argue should at the very least receive equal time from those who become indignant over cruel, bigoted language.
On March 18, the New York Times ran a lengthy cover story in its heralded Sunday Magazine about widespread sexual harassment and rape of female U.S. soldiers by their male colleagues in Iraq. Written by a reporter, Sarah Corbett, the article combined the available official studies, and statements of specialists, with poignant narratives by women soldiers whom she interviewed intensively.
The evidence she amassed included a report in 2003, funded by the Department of Defense (DOD), which declared that nearly one-third of a nationwide sample of female veterans seeking health care through the V.A. said they experienced rape or attempted rape during their service. Of that group, 37 percent said they were raped multiple times, and 14 percent reported they were gang-raped.
A change in DOD policy in 2005 allowing sexual assaults to be reported confidentially in “restricted reports” led to the number of reported assaults across the military rising 40 percent.
There are still many reasons why female soldiers are reluctant to report sexual violence, especially in combat zones. Solidarity is survival. Complaining about your superior or soldiers of comparable ranking ruptures the working hierarchy and its military mission. In addition, it is often the woman’s word against the man’s word. As one sailor told Ms. Corbett, “You just don’t expect anything to be done about it anyway, so why even try?” She said she was raped at a naval base on Guam before being deployed to Iraq.
Female soldiers coming back from Iraq relate their fears of even going to the latrines in the middle of the night for the fear of being sexually assaulted.
Sexual violence is often dismissed as fabricated, exaggerated or consensual. It is important not to tarnish many upstanding and respectful male soldiers and sailors with sweeping generalizations.
Abbie Pickett, who is a 24 year old combat-support specialist with the Wisconsin Army Naitonal Guard, told Ms. Corbett: “You’re one of three things in the military-a bitch, a whore or a dyke. As a female, you get classified pretty quickly.”
Particularly since the Tailhook episode in 1991 which involved sexual violence against women at a naval party, the Pentagon has become more concerned about such assaults. There are far more women in areas of combat now as well. Over 160,000 women have seen active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan already.
Bottom line to all the reports-official and individual-was summarized by the New York Times this way: “Many have reported being sexually assaulted, harassed and raped by fellow soldiers and officers.” (For more information see http://www.democracyrising.us)
Assault and rape are crimes, deeds of devastating impact on the lives of these young women. They are not just vile words. Yet in the month since the New York Times article was published, there has been almost no public outrage and no demands for more investigation, more corrective action, more law enforcement.
The members of Congress-women and men-have not mobilized for action. The press did not follow up on the article-“The Women’s War” by Ms. Corbett. The National Organization of Women (NOW) condemned Don Imus in no uncertain terms. They have not yet demanded multiple actions to be taken on this continuing violence against women.
Aside from the indifference of the male legislators, Congress is now graced by the largest number of women lawmakers in its history. The Speaker of the House is a woman-Nancy Pelosi. Sure, she has her hands full with the Iraq war. But this is an internal war against many women who need her leadership and her status to spark remedial or preventative action.
Words inflaming more than deeds is also too often the case when racial epithets are uttered by public figures. All those groups and civil rights leaders who conquered and ended the Don Imus media empire should ask themselves what have they done in any sustained manner, given their power and media access, about the brutality of racism by commercial interests in the urban ghettos. Deaths, injuries, disease and loss of livelihood are a daily occurrence, apart from raw street crime and drugs. Little children seriously poisoned by lead, asbestos and other toxics. Whole neighborhoods redlined without adequate corporate police protection. Predatory lending, predatory interest rates, marketing shoddy products and contaminated food proliferate.
Where have been the cries of outrage, the demands for removal of these conditions and prosecution of these crooks and defrauders? The abysmal conditions are daily, weekly, monthly. They have been occasionally reported in gripping human interest terms and statistics and maps.
If only the offenders used words, instead of committing these awful deeds. Maybe there would have been action, front page headlines and prime time television and radio coverage. If only they used words!
RALPH NADER is the author of The Seventeen Traditions