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Commentary: Hawkeye Pierce and his motley crew still relevant

Hawkeye Pierce and his motley crew—not to mention the writers for M.A.S.H.—were as aware of the pitfalls of intrusive surveillance as forward-looking thinkers are now. Just last evening, there was Hawkeye on a cable television rerun as we don’t often see him: with a cute girlfriend who looked like a real possibility.

After an equally cute, almost fifteen-minute rendition of what it’s like to be the payroll officer that week and the usual jokes about camp food, his tent, not very private in the first place, became even more populated with personnel popping in every time things with said girlfriend had potential.

Finally, the girlfriend-possibility got up resignedly and left, saying in so many words, “See you after the war.”

Being watched changes behavior when what is meant to be private no longer is private. And this episode wasn’t about purposeful surveillance, just a look at the lack of privacy as a given in close quarters.

But imagine a situation where to prove that a sexual assault victim—not the perpetrator-- meets someone else’s standards of “okayness” in intimate situations, she is required to have a sexual or a dating encounter while being secretly video-recorded. And imagine that she has become aware of it—both the supposed “test” and the video.

Those who aren’t shy in private sexuality might well say the same thing that Hawkeye’s girlfriend said, preferring the risk of being labeled with shyness to the risk of providing entertainment for the troops. Ten times worse—maybe even hundreds of times worse—than the satire in old M.A.S.H. episodes, surveillance of this kind is well within the realm of possibility because cameras can invade just about anything without disclosure.

To help prevent the possible and the probable from becoming the usual, those who might be affected by that fact—and it is everyone, if you believe the classic “1984” --might also take into consideration what is called “the ratchet effect.”

The Harvard Law School National Security Journal online carried an article posted on July 2, 2013, titled “The NSA Surveillance Controversy: How the Ratchet Effect Can Impact Anti-Terrorism Laws.” The author notes that what may be surveillance abuses may be “consistent with what is known as the “ratchet effect” in legal scholarship.”

He goes on to say that “The ratchet effect is a unidirectional change in some legal variable that can become entrenched over time, setting in motion a process that can then repeat itself indefinitely.”

Perhaps with a similar cautionary note in mind, just a year ago, on April 24, 2013, the Department of Justice published new guidelines for aid to sexual assault victims. The 145-page report is online for public viewing. Adjusting the system so that victims are protected more than they were previously is a step forward.

Because these are federal guidelines, they are now the standard instead of lesser ones that might be issued elsewhere. But attention should also be paid specifically to military and college systems where reviews and investigations have been recently announced. There can be special issues in a closed community, and the report mentions these on page 49:

Strive to resolve intrajurisdictional conflicts. For example, maintaining confidentiality is often difficult in isolated or small communities where people know one another or word of a crime travels quickly (e.g., school campuses and tribal, military, religious, or immigrant communities). Special precautions must be taken in these situations to preserve confidentiality.

Moreover, because the military in particular is organized by rank and because rank means power, it is crucial to discuss the fact that sexual assault, including rape, is not about sex as such. While it is true that the meaning of consensual sex varies from person to person, because rape is against the victim’s will and without the victim’s consent, it is about power, too.

Another factor: Sexual assault cases, including rape, on campus and in the military, might be affected by the “ratchet effect.” Even if it doesn’t modify or extend law in itself, the “ratchet effect” could well create more than just a culture that accepts sexual assault in a closed community; it could create a policy-- even if that policy is unwritten.

Although investigations at various colleges and a review of military justice have been announced to see what variables exist in acts of sexual assault, in reporting the acts, and in the results of that reporting, they can’t be the only step. Those studying and assessing sexual assault in the military and colleges should simultaneously take a close look to see if, for instance, institutional loyalty beyond loyalty to the perpetrator is an obstacle that has taken off with a life of its own.

Otherwise, institutions could be adding yet another, often hidden, component to issues impacting what are, after all, other people’s lives.

Linda Chalmer Zemel writes often about social issues as they pertain to holistic health. She teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College. She is the publisher and editor of Person, Place, Thing, a literary journal, and the author of a novel, Witch Hunt.