Posted: Jun 13, 2001 12:00 AM
You will not believe what the United States, via the U.S. Navy, is engaged in, in Vieques, Puerto Rico! We have been increasing the death rate, causing cancer, precipitating infant mortality, generating vibroacoustic disease, inducing alcoholism, stimulating drug abuse and multiplying HIV infections.

That's terrible, and -- to be sure, only after a proper trial and conviction -- we should consider a firing squad for the top admiral in charge, and perhaps for the secretary of the Navy. Those who'd call for impeachment proceedings against the president may be overdoing it, but history will establish that there is no safe hiding for a chief executive responsible for such wanton damage to an innocent people.

It is reassuring that at the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York, outrage was uniformly expressed. The top New Yorkers were prominent at the head of the parade, led by New York's Gov. George Pataki, Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. All four Democratic contenders for mayor marched together, and though there may be policy differences among them on other matters, on the question of Vieques there was none: They wore armbands that proclaimed an important goal for the mayor of New York: "Peace for Vieques."

Mrs. Clinton was especially eager to declare her solidarity with the Puerto Rican people, not merely those 9,400 who live on the island of Vieques. Sen. Clinton spent the entire parade time clutching two flags. One was the flag of the United States; the second, the flag of Vieques. ... Flag of Vieques? Does Coney Island have its own flag? Where'd she get it? How come Vieques has a flag?

Vieques was settled in mid-1843, is the answer to that, and it was called Isabel Segunda, after the queen of Spain. Why shouldn't they have their own flag? Maybe with 9,000 inhabitants the Viequees (sic) should have their own navy? We might then see a David and Goliath showdown, but we'd have to hope Sen. Clinton and the New York political faculty would give our side -- the U.S. side -- a hearing of some kind before adopting the Vieques flag as their own.

What would an attorney representing the United States say if arraigned by the human rights committee of the United Nations?

Well, the gunnery done by the Navy is nine miles from the only population center of Vieques, and downwind from it, which means that whatever rises from the gunnery rises out to sea, not upwind to the inhabitants of Vieques. The Navy's attorney might go on to say that at a distance of nine miles, you can't really make out the sound of a bomb detonating. Not unless you really strain to hear it, which would require pretty good hearing.

The defense attorney would take on the infant-mortality charge, which originated in February 2000 when the Puerto Rico Physicians and Surgeons Association charged that at Vieques, infant mortality was 50 percent higher than in mainland Puerto Rico. These representations -- widely reiterated every day, everywhere -- were weighed by Puerto Rico Health Secretary Dr. Carmen Feliciano, who observed that the organization had been "lying to the public." The association had simply eliminated birth figures between 1996 and 1998. If they hadn't done so, the figures would have shown infant mortality in Vieques lower than in mainland Puerto Rico.

But how would the Navy's defense handle the problem of cancer in Vieques? Well, he'd invite a little perspective here. Data show that the annual cancer rates on Vieques have been alternately both higher and lower than those of mainland Puerto Rico over the past several decades. Moreover, he'd show that the volatility of Vieques cancer statistics rests on so simple a reason as that the population is so tiny that individual cases of cancer make big statistical splashes. The anti-Navy people simply picked the year that best served their prosecutorial cause.

At that point the Navy's defense lawyer would introduce a representative of the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health to examine the charge that naval gunnery causes that "vibroacoustic" heart malady complained about. The Johns Hopkins people will testify that "within the constraint of the data available, no inference can be made as to the role of noise from naval gunfire in producing echocardiographic abnormalities."

Would the Navy then rest its case?

No, no, no! The Navy would assert that two important things are being accomplished by the gunnery practice on Vieques. One of these is the training of men and women who have in the past exercised, and alas will almost certainly have to exercise at some point in the future, military skills designed to save the lives of real people threatened by something worse than echocardiographic abnormalities, for instance the Kuwaitis when they were invaded by Iraq.

And the other accomplishment of the Navy?

The Navy has kept the Rev. Al Sharpton in the cooler for two and a half memorable weeks. He has lost 14 pounds from his practice of a hunger strike, and there are those who wish he would maintain that rate of loss on till Isabel Segunda celebrates her 200th birthday.