EVER SINCE Sept. 11, 2001, government officials have been complaining that a shortage of employees proficient in Arabic has hampered the fight against terrorists. The intelligence agencies have sought to recruit people with language skills so that documents and intercepts could be translated promptly. But in the military, at least, the desire to defeat al Qaeda has been preempted by an apparently more important priority: continuing the irrational discrimination against gay men and lesbians who would serve their country. According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, at least seven Arabic linguists -- along with two Korean-language specialists and an expert in Mandarin Chinese -- have been discharged from the services since the attacks last year solely because of their sexual orientation.

The gay ban, reflecting one of this country's last officially sanctioned forms of bigotry, stigmatizes patriotic Americans by excluding them from military life, often after intrusive witch hunts. By marginalizing those who wish to put useful talents at the service of their country, it also weakens America in its life-or-death struggle, which, as President Bush has repeatedly said, is profoundly different from previous wars. The military can't afford these days to waste human resources or turn away the energy of qualified men and women who wish to help. That is as true of linguists as it is of combat specialists.

Yet even while the Bush administration has demanded dramatic changes to aid the war on al Qaeda -- some quite challenging to important American values -- it has not lifted a finger to expunge self-destructive prejudices from the military's personnel policies. Steve Ralls, spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, says that the more than 1,200 service people discharged in 2001 made up the highest yearly total since 1987. Each of those discharges unfairly stigmatized someone as unfit for service. Meanwhile, the policy weakens the nation's readiness for war.