- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 23, 2000

If the U.S. Justice Department moved as aggressively against killers and terrorists as it did against the relatives of Elian Gonzalez, crime in this country would disappear. In a heavily armed raid at the Miami family's residence Saturday morning, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents knocked down the door and, automatic weapons pointing at a terrified Elian and the family friend holding him as they cowered in a closet, demanded he be handed over. Said the friend, the agents told him to "give me the boy or I'll shoot you."

With a whiff of "jackbooted thugs" in the air, the administration moved quickly to "spin" the raid as best it could. In hours, it hustled over to CNN and other news outlets photos of a smiling Elian reunited with his father in an effort to counter the ugly photo above. Meanwhile, Attorney General Janet Reno played down the significance of the AP photo (by Alan Diaz) capturing forever the gunpoint demand, saying that, well, depending on how you looked at the photo, the "gun was pointed to one side" and the agent's "finger was not on the trigger."

Forgive Donato Dalrymple, the man holding Elian in the photo, for not noticing. If Miss Reno were the one in the closet, an automatic weapon in her face, would she be checking for the position of the finger? Her remarks are destined for the same infamy as those she used to describe U.S. tanks pounding into the residence of the Branch Davidians at Waco as the equivalent of "good rental cars."

Was this storm-trooper approach necessary? Miss Reno says the feds decided to proceed with the raid after negotiations for a deal to transfer custody of the body to his father collapsed. Marisleysis Gonzalez, Elian's female cousin, says negotiations were continuing right up to the moment when the feds kicked the door in. (No search warrant was necessary because of a court order lifting custody of the boy from Lazaro Gonzalez, the boy's great uncle.) Miss Reno says she had earlier declared the negotiations were over.

Why then all the firepower? Miss Reno said there might have been guns "perhaps in the crowd, perhaps in the house" and that agents had to be prepared just in case. Recall that the attorney general ginned up charges of child abuse about the Branch Davidians as a pretext for the tank assault on their home that culminated in fire and the deaths of dozens of men, women and children. Asked for the evidence of child abuse afterward, Miss Reno confessed that as a matter of fact there wasn't any.

The family of Lazaro Gonzalez had said repeatedly that it would not keep federal officials from coming to the house and taking the boy. Miss Reno produced no evidence of violence in the family. She and the INS could have walked up to the front door, knocked and retrieved Elian themselves. But that would have meant taking a weeping child away in front of all the TV cameras, and the administration desperately did not want that kind of press. The goal was to get in and out with the boy before it could make the nightly news. Hence the use of force. Further, administration media managers wanted to make sure the story broke over the weekend when most Americans wouldn't be following the news too closely. (That's also why the White House released on Friday the news that Justice Department officials interviewed the president and vice president in connection with possible campaign-finance violations.) If this strategy meant traumatizing Elian by pointing guns at him, with or without the finger on the trigger, apparently that was fine with this administration.

With the boy back in Washington, the next question becomes how soon he and his father will return to Cuba. There is a court order blocking Elian and his father from leaving this country prior to a hearing before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in May. Will Miss Reno enforce it? And what possible sanction does the court have that could mean anything to an administration as cavalier as this one is about abiding by law?

Another question: The media treated the country to week after week of taped reruns involving the infamous beating of Rodney King. How long will it show the shots of the gun-toting "good soldier" above? Notwithstanding Ms. Reno's willingness to take aim at Elian, don't expect her to advertise it.

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