The following is a critique of the offensive operation held this past holiday weekend in which the current administration decided it was time to launch an assault on a small family in Miami. It is interesting to note that it comes on the anniversary of Columbine, Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Bay of Pigs.
Janet Reno and the INS have shown America and the world what happens when the government of a free democracy, here to protect its citizens, abruptly decides it has run out of time. And, it seems, our great superpower has the right to treat peaceful individuals as though they were terrorists, simply because its patience is weaker than its might.
And since they seem to be more concerned with polls than in asking detailed questions about this operation, I submit the following list of questions, issues and findings intended to urge people to evaluate the strategy and concerns of a government founded on the principle of protecting our liberties, our safety, and our rights.
1) The element of surprise: How would you respond to a 30 second warning at 5:00 AM? This is barely enough time to wake up and gather your wits in order to deal with a threatening, armed contingent wearing body armor and banging at the door. Was this just another way for the INS to paint the family as non-cooperative, giving them the excuse to use a battering ram to break their way in??
2) It is crucial to look at the firepower used in what is basically a child custody case. Of the Justice Departments' 130 officers involved in the seizure operation, 8 INS agents carrying 9mm submachine guns broke through the front door, while 2 other officers jumped the back fence, subduing a man with pepper spray & a shotgun to the right ear (source: Newsweek); and all this occurred while Gonzalez family lawyers were on the phone in last-minute negotiations with Aaron Podhurst, who had Janet Reno on the other line (sources: Newsweek, Washington Post).
3) The INS claims that the safety of its officers was an issue as regards to the crowd of people outside the house; crowd control, however, cannot be misconstrued as the need for the heavily armed contingent sent in to subdue a household containing a small family, their legal council, and a frightened child. Concerning the Rules of Engagement, Ms. Reno was adamant that this was a "show" of force, not to be confused with "the use" of force, as she spoke in an interview with Jim Lehrer on the Lehrer Newshour, broadcast on PBS a few days after the raid. Does she seriously mean to say that breaking down doors and pointing automatic weapons within inches of a child is only a "show" of force? The only "show" is the one being performed by the Justice Department; as concerns the officer pointing the submachine gun within inches of the child in the now infamous photo, they even want the public to note the position of the officer's finger in relation to the trigger: it is held straight away, not curled around the trigger, though it would take only a split second to move the finger into a firing position. This is perhaps one of the most deadly and sickening issues in the entire confrontation; it seems that, in a situation of this gravity, with such firepower in hand, the potential escalation of violence could only be fuled by such an eagerness on the part of government officials to use such a "show" of deadly force.
4) Did you see, at any time during the raid, a single officer being attacked by the crowd? Yet they fired large plumes of pepper spray at them, recalling the recent events in the Seattle WTO protests in which non-violent protestors were aggressively pepper-sprayed.
Media coverage of the crowd was shown to be unruly, throwing & burning large objects; Note that this was not before the 5:00 AM raid, but only after the attack and subsequent capture of the child.
5) In the heat of the action, is a small boy actually supposed to feel "safe" as he is carried away by the only unarmed officer in the raid (Betty Mills), or is this just a spin tactic for publicity, showing a friendly woman holding the child, all the while surrounded by a team of heavily armed personnel in riot gear?
6) The Justice Dept. & INS officials said this armed assault was necessary because the government had reason to believe there were weapons, and perhaps people prepared to use them--so officials knew this action might result in a firefight that might kill people, including Elian; what legitimate justification could there be for taking this risk? Well, one would be that Elian was in danger or was being harmed in some way or was a hostage...but not the slightest evidence was offered for the claim (Michael Kelly, Washington Post).
"Senior officials repeated that the use of force was justified by intelligence reports that there may have been guns in the house or among the protesters outside, although they offered NO EVIDENCE." (Karen DeYoung, Washington Post).
Elian's cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez, reportedly told community-relations workers that if the Feds came into the house, they could be "hurt" --this coming from a relative who had been hospitalized at least 8 times for stress (Newsweek). Are we to think that she wouldn't have been under great strain, at times venting her frustration? Compare this to the father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez who, on ABC's Nightline, only a number of months ago, made comments such as using a "rifle" to deal with those in Miami.
The point is, were officers to respond militarily to every child custody case in which passionate relatives make offensive comments, this country would be a war zone.
The Miami relatives have absolutely no history of violence or criminal behavior; Donato Dalrymple (holding Elian in the closet as the officer held them at gunpoint), one of the fishermen who rescued the boy last Thanksgiving, is a former missionary. Are we to believe that Marisleysis, Lazaro & family were so dangerous that the use of 8 agents carrying 9mm submachine guns was necessary in confronting a child custody case? This was not a crack house filled with violent criminals, this was not a house filled with thugs or gang members, this was not the location of Mafioso or known felons... this was the residence of Elian's family whose only crime was that they couldn't reach an agreement over how and when to come to terms with the decision to separate them from a small child whom they loved.
"This was not a hostage situation and not a matter of urgency. Indeed, with a court hearing set for May 11 to consider arguments for Elian's request for asylum, there was every reason to allow the judicial process to proceed toward a peaceful resolution that might grant the Miami Gonzalezes their day in court and also reunite Elian with his father." (Washington Post)
7) Patience vs. predatory strategy: Why not simply wait the family out? Honestly, how long could a small household hold out against the might of the government? Janet Reno and the INS have used the issue of the family's holdout against the rule of law... does this justify an armed operation that could have resulted in deadly violence? It seems the message is this: If you're a group of criminals or cult members with a compound full of massive weapons, in fact using those weapons against law enforcement, the government is willing to draw out the situation for weeks, even months; however, if you are a tiny household of non-violent individuals passionate about a child's flight to freedom, the government doesn't have the time or inclination to wait a few more days in order to diffuse a tense situation.
Our leaders seem to respect force much more than a family's right to hold on for what they honestly believe is an issue of liberty and the choice of a mother who died fleeing the type of regime whose tactics the INS seems to have employed.
Patience takes a back seat:
Awakened at 2:15 AM (before the raid), President Clinton said that Reno should take more time if she needed it: "Make sure she knows that" were his words to his chief of staff, John Podesta. In one of her calls to her old friend Aaron Podhurst (a respected Miami lawyer brought in to try to broker a deal), Reno said,"I've been at this for months." Podhurst, juggling calls between Reno and Lazaro's lawyers at the house, responded,"I've been at this for 2 days; we're going to work this out, General." However, Reno only gave Podhurst until 4:00 AM to secure the deal to have the Miami relatives send Elian to Washington. Podhurst couldn't understand the rush; at about 4:00 AM, Reno ordered the Feds to begin positioning themselves for a 5:00 AM raid. At 4:21, Podhurst asked her for more time... Reno told him he had 5 minutes. He had Reno on hold while negotiating on the other line with one of the family's lawyers (in their bungalow's dining room) when he heard them say,"Oh my God, the marshals" (Newsweek).
8) And what of the establishment? Republicans, opposing the Clinton administration, have come out against the operation; Democrats, carrying the party line, have said that the raid was necessary & successful, confident that the ends justify the means. "I think the attorney general's conduct was commendable," said Rep. Charles Rangel (D). At least there will be a congressional hearing on the matter, though the republicans calling for it are taking heat due to public opinion over their previous use of lengthy, expensive investigations.
On C-Span broadcasts, Senator Leahy (D) was busy quoting family values, while another democrat senator was busy demonizing the Miami family, claiming they had used Elian as a tool against Castro. Senator B. Smith (R), following a session in which Reno was questioned about the situation, noted that the boy now has no legal council (even though the court, in early May, will have to rule on his request for asylum), and concerning the raid, commented that Reno said that if negotiations broke down by a certain time, the raid would commence. This attitude toward a sudden need to give up on negotiations was met with skepticism by many on capitol hill who couldn't understand Reno's justifications to give up attempts at a non-violent resolution to the problem; they cited no evidence that on-going negotiations should be terminated.
In fact the only deadlines set in this case were those set by the Justice Department.
The President gave a short speech focusing not on the Justice Dept.'s tactics, rather very smoothly calling for a time to heal. On C-Span, Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary, claimed that the administration cares deeply about Elian's welfare, yet dealt rudely when responding to reporters' questions concerning what guarantees the administration might have that Castro won't use Elian as a propaganda tool if & when he returns to Cuba. He repeatedly deflected questions concerning this matter by refferring them to the INS; it seems that they are able to care deeply and at the same time pass the buck on the issue of assurances from Cuba.
If the administration had any sense (and backbone), they would be doing something about the deeper issue: an outdated cold war policy that is overwhelmingly condemned by a majority of government officials, analysts & others who see the effects that failed US foreign policy is having in regards to Cuba. Basically, we have a "wait until Castro dies" policy which could lead to serious consequences when a new regime takes over a situation involving tensions between Cuban refugees, their citizens and the potential for the US to be put into a very tight spot should the changeover be destabilizing.
Finally, did Elian and his mother ever really escape Cuba? Which country do we expect to launch a raid in which officers wielding automatic weapons break down doors while raiding the house of a non-violent family under the cover of darkness? This is something which, if described to most people, would sound like the actions of a totalitarian regime known for violating human rights and other liberties.
This operation is but one in which we could find fault with the government. The public is constantly irritated as our system takes so much time in completing the simplest tasks. In this case, perhaps a slower, more deliberate approach might have set a precedent for the peaceful resolution of what could have been a deadly, explosive situation.
I can only conclude by asking: is this our "kindler, gentler nation?"