Lying is wrong but is there no room for contrition?

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By Scott Graber

It is Saturday, early, and I’m listening to “The People’s Pharmacy” and feeling the warmth of a well-tended fire. This morning “People’s Pharmacy” gives us a Harvard geneticist who has written a book about aging. The book gives one tips on aging — slow, elegant, elegiac aging — and one of his tips is don’t lie if you can help it.

I am, I must confess, surprised.

Yes, I understand one must seek-out fiber and avoid sugar and stress. But lying?

All of which reminds me of a recent cheating scandal at West Point — cheating on a calculus exam. Cheating involving a winning football team. Cheating that might have meant forgoing the Liberty Bowl.

Cheating (at West Point, Annapolis and Colorado Springs) is something that makes headlines because cheating is an Honor Violation and if one is found guilty one gets a one-way ticket home. At least that’s what used to happen. It’s what happened at The Citadel in those long gone days when I was cadet.

Although there was no turn-your-back-on-the-condemned ceremony that was featured in the movie “Lords of Discipline,” at The Citadel, the trials were held at night and the cadet, if convicted, had to be gone by morning.

I was, I must admit, surprised to learn that West Point softened its “ticket home” policy in 1976, making it possible, in some instances, to stay at the Academy in spite of conviction. West Point has something called the “Willful Admit Program” that sends some cadets (accused of lesser violations) to ethics and honor rehabilitation classes.

In an effort to get a better perspective on West Point cheating, I wrote my friend Ben Peeples in Charleston. Ben and I were classmates at The Citadel in the 1960s, and Ben had been a member of the Honor Court. So I sent Ben a draft of my proposed column asking for his thoughts.

“Don’t print this,” he wrote back.

When I called Ben asking for details, he asked if I was familiar with the “normalization of deviance” concept.

“I’m not,” I replied.

“Do you remember the Challenger?”

Ben then explained about the “O-rings” that failed, burned up just after launch, and the explosion that then killed the entire crew. All of which was witnessed by most of the country, including little children, on live television.

Ben explained that the O-rings had been scorched in earlier missions, but they had not failed. He explained that NASA, then under tremendous pressure to keep the Shuttle flying, decided that their previous protocol of absolutely no scorching could be modified. That a little bit of scorching was OK.

“What has that got to do with cheating at West Point?”

Ben then told me about studies done on commercial pilots and the checklist protocol they do every time they fly an airplane. He said that some pilots to not do the entire list, deciding for themselves that a particular system has never failed and checking it is a waste of time.

“Studies show that once a single protocol is ignored it’s easy to ignore a 2nd or 3rd system,” Ben said. “That often leads to routinely skipping other systems that are believed to be working without problems. This is what we call the normalization of deviance,” he said.

Although I am often slow on the uptake, I finally realized that Ben was arguing that softening the punishment — the go home consequence of an honor violation — was a step in the wrong direction.

“Look, Scott,” he said. “When you come to The Citadel, you make a deal about no cheating. Then if you cheat — you don’t lose your life or pay a fine or go to jail — you simply lose your right to stay. To be part of the club,” he said.

And so, this morning, I sit by my small fire reading the blogs of the West Point alumni who mourn the passing of the “Old Corps,” who say the honor inculcated at West Point is now and forever cheapened.

“We’ve become like everybody else,” they write. “The United States Army, as we know it, will never be the same.”

But as one who once defended a cadet who was accused on an Honor Violation, I know the searing pain and shame that comes with conviction. Part of me believes that West Point is justified in making room for the admission of guilt; for rehabilitation and leniency.

For me this is a tough call.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.