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Commentary/Rajeev Srinivasan

Americans like to preach, but when it comes to practice, morals be damned!

Am I imagining it, or is there a veritable tidal wave of morality sweeping America these days? Timothy McVeigh is convicted of being the bomber who blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City -- the most destructive terrorist act in US history. Bill Clinton is stripped of his presidential immunity in the case involving Paula Jones, whom he allegedly harassed sexually.

A precedent-setting class-action suit is being heard in federal court, where flight attendants are suing the tobacco industry based on alleged health problems derived from inhaling 'second-hand smoke'. And finally, the headlines are occupied for a few days with Lt Kelly Flinn, a woman bomber pilot, being dishonorably discharged from the air force for adultery, insubordination and, er, 'fraternisation' with a lower-ranking soldier, a married man to boot.

What are we to make of all this? It is notable that the public debate in almost all these cases is framed largely in moral terms. The radio talk-shows, which appear to gauge the general mood of the populace, were flooded with angry calls suggesting McVeigh ought to be executed forthwith -- those who argued for mere life-imprisonment were roundly berated as un-American, knee-jerk bleeding-heart liberals.

Bill Clinton, as the Economist puts it, 'is sleazier than most presidents.' Clinton-bashers, generally suspicious of his ethics, crow, "I told you so!" But the morally-conscious took heart in the judiciary's reiteration that equality before the law is paramount and even the wealthiest and most powerful are not exempt. The assorted scam-meisters of India (Bofors, telephone, hawala, St. Kitts, fodder, etc.) and the Central Bureau of Investigation's Joginder Singh should take note.

The American tobacco industry, long suspected of deliberately concealing its knowledge of the highly deleterious health effects of smoking, finds itself with its back against the wall; one of the tobacco majors, the Liggett group, has broken ranks to 'confess'; the industry's public relations machine isn't able to save the day, and even the rather cheery 'Joe Camel' and the 'Marlboro Man' are under attack. Public opinion has swung decisively in favour of non-smokers and anti-smokers.

In the pilot's case, there are intriguing possibilities. As one of the most visible women in the armed forces -- the first woman to qualify to pilot nuclear-missile-carrying B-52 long-range bombers -- Lt Flinn was perhaps made an example of. The rationale for her dismissal was not that she committed adultery, but that she 'lied, and disobeyed a direct order'. By the way, 'regrettable collateral damage' (I love that euphemism!) to random passers-by: an adulterous General Joseph Ralston was forced to withdraw his candidacy to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military's number one slot.

Since America, after all, was founded by a group of disaffected Puritans, I suppose it is not altogether surprising to see a moral streak in the country; on the other hand, is it morality or moralising? A large number of Americans indulge in adultery, sexual harassment and recreational drugs; yet they fulminate over a public figure doing the very same things. Double standards, surely.

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Rajeev Srinivasan, continued

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