It was in the insurance business, the claims end of it to be precise, that I first encountered the term "act of God." It refers to an accident that is no one's fault--like when a tree falls on a car. You cannot sue the tree and you cannot, in this jurisdiction at least, sue the tree's maker. All you can do is get yourself a new car.
As rare as acts of God are, they seem to be popping up all over the place.
The most recent one, in fact, comes to us from Virginia, where Deborah Katz just won a suit against the Federal Aviation Administration for sexual harassment.
Katz, a former air traffic controller, was called every vile name in the book by her male colleagues.
She was demeaned, denounced, told she would get promoted if she slept with another controller, refused a transfer and was informed--just in case she did not get the picture--that she was not wanted.
It was the considered view of her male colleagues that women should not be air traffic controllers. They cannot take the pressure.
Now the reason this is an act of God is that there seems to be no one responsible for what happened to Katz.
Despite an appeals court decision that names names, despite the fact that supervisors are quoted using language that the appeals court termed "extremely vulgar," nothing has happened to any of them.
They have gone merrily on, talking planes into National and Dulles, exulting in the maleness of it all and having, one supposes, wonderful times recounting how they made Katz miserable.
Do not think for a moment, though, that no one is paying for what happened. Katz paid, of course--through the teeth, in fact.
She had to endure a year of this sort of stuff (1981), and then she had to sue to finally be heard and she had to pay something like $30,000 in legal costs.
An act of God does not mean that there is no victim; it only means that no one is responsible.
There are, though, other victims--you and me. In our roles as taxpayers, we have to pay for what the pigs at the FAA's Leesburg center did. Not only did they cost us one controller, but they made us pay for the government lawyers who had to defend them and, in the end, for the judgment to Katz herself--whatever that turns out to be.
The real culprits paid not a thing and, it appears, suffered not at all.
It would be wrong to think that this sort of situation is peculiar to the FAA and the foulmouthed boys at Leesburg.
In both the public and the private sector, the rule that the buck stops somewhere is broken when it comes to either racial or sexual harassment. For some reason, they remain a mere triviality for which no one is held accountable and for which no one is ever fired.
Not too long ago, for instance, the District of Columbia was found to have discriminated on racial grounds against an employe. The employe sued, the District fought the case in court, the employe won--and the supervisor remained on the job. When it comes to these cases, the buck never stops.
I am, I have to tell you, a mild-mannered man who, like Henry Higgins, has the milk of human kindness flowing in his veins.
But I made the mistake of reading the appeals court decision in the Katz case and never have I heard such language used about a woman--not to mention in her presence. It pains me that the men saying these things were on my payroll.
And it pains me even more that they continue on that same payroll. The court record literally reeks with what the male air traffic controllers said to Katz.
Yet the FAA, which says it is studying the matter, has so far done nothing to punish the men involved, some of whom have been adjudicated the supreme garbage mouths of the western world.
The FAA either seems to think that boys will be boys or that the ordeal of Deborah Katz was an act of God.
It was, though, nothing of the sort. It was the act of men, specific men--government employes, some of them supervisors, some of them not.
If there is anything at all to the theory that punishment is a deterrent, then someone ought to be punished for what was done at Leesburg.
Otherwise, like true acts of God, it will continue.