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Men of the Law, Above the Law

THE recent scandals among the institutions on which Americans depend for their security raise painful questions of responsibility, accountability, and ultimately of morality itself. Have decades of cold war abroad and rising tensions in the inner city created a destructive mystique in the military, the CIA, and the police that makes their members feel above the law, responsible only to their own?

Let's call the roll. There were the sexual assaults by naval aviators at their Tailhook convention in 1991, and the Navy's stubborn resistance to investigating itself. There was the recent drunken rampage by New York policemen in the hotels of Washington, and the difficulties that inquiry is facing. There was the CIA's outrageously slow response to clues that it harbored a Soviet mole; Aldrich Ames flaunted his Soviet millions and got away with it for nearly nine years. There was the Air Force's strange leniency in punishing those responsible for the friendly fire incident over northern Iraq that killed 27. And there is last week's accusation by a senior official - unproven, to be sure - that the Air Force had covered up misconduct in accidental plane crashes.

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Certain phrases appear and reappear: "boys will be boys," "band of brothers," "us vs. them," "the thin blue line," and the tacit hint that "risk has its privileges." The "boys will be boys" syndrome contends that sexual or alcoholic outbursts are a more or less acceptable male response to high stress, tight discipline, and rigid authority. Shipboard life in particular is cramped, claustrophobic, closely regulated, without privacy or diversity, trees or grass. Saturday night on the town is the traditional way out, with officers turning a blind eye. But what was tolerated at Subic Bay or the Naples waterfront was rejected by women in Las Vegas, where new attitudes about relations between the sexes had taken hold.

There is also the "risk has its privileges" rationale, with men who accept danger while serving the nation expecting an entitlement: toleration for misbehavior. Of course it's dangerous to land on a pitching carrier deck, patrol in a police squad car, or even serve the CIA on strife-torn third-world streets. These are not conscripts, however, but volunteers. They may deserve admiration for their bravery, but not entitlements that raise them above the law.

Risk easily segues into the "band of brothers" syndrome, which the police in particular - and even the CIA - often transform into "us vs. them." Both organizations face inward, separating their craft from the outside world. Any failure within brings a circling of the wagons, the automatic rejection of criticism, a certainty that they know better and should be allowed to judge their own. So police forces everywhere fight furiously against civilian review boards, much as CIA insiders attacked reform-minded directors.

That's the key issue: Keep the outsiders out. So it is in caste systems, where the segments of society are privileged to regulate themselves in return for the services they provide. National security obviously ranks highest, and the aristocratic European armies before 1914 rejected civil authority over military personnel: We judge our own! In the multistate cold war then under way, civilians could only agree.

Americans too have long stood to their arms in a cold war, and those who demand a "war against crime" adopt its metaphors. There is a price, however.

In the name of compassion and senti-ment, of patriotism and guilt over the insults meted out during the Vietnam War, we hesitate to demand strict accountability from our security institutions.

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