April 26, 2000

A Needed Debate Over Elian

Editorial. Published Wednesday, April 26, 2000, in the Miami Herald

Don't Let Partisanship Taint Search For Answers.

What did each side know, and when did they know it?

The much-needed national debate over Saturday's predawn decision forcibly to remove Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives began yesterday, but in a manner that raises doubts that meaningful answers will be found.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott summoned Attorney General Janet Reno to Capitol Hill for a closed-door preliminary hearing in the first of what might become a series of sessions spiraling out of this human drama. He promised that the inquiry would not be a ``witch hunt.''

Yet after more than two hours of what participants later described as an occasionally emotional session, participants -- with the lone exception of Florida Democrat Bob Graham -- emerged divided along partisan lines. Republicans, beginning with Sen. Lott and including Florida Republican Connie Mack, were unanimous in blistering Ms. Reno for her decision to allow the armed INS agents to carry out the removal.

Democrats were equally united in saying that the attorney general had no choice, that the Miami relatives had been recalcitrant for too long. That partisan divide was evident too at the White House where President Clinton made it a point to ``commend the attorney general -- it was no easy choice.''

Agree or disagree, those reactions are unfortunate for the simple reason that they are premature. There remain more questions than answers about Ms. Reno's decision for any objective conclusion to be drawn about whether she should be commended or criticized. Other participants in the all-night discussions that preceded the decision to send in the agents are still to be heard from, but haven't been in any public forum other than the news media.

It may be asking too much of politicians in an election year to put aside partisanship. But to the extent some can, here are some of the key questions we believe demand answers:

Was the action necessary? Was an agreement for the exchange of custody between the Miami relatives and Juan Miguel Gonzalez within the grasp of the citizen negotiators, as they believe?

If the attorney general is correct in concluding that the great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, would not surrender Elian, was it necessary to enter the house with force, before dawn, with heavy weapons?

Was Lazaro Gonzalez legally obligated to surrender the boy absent a court order? Or, as some constitutional experts claim, did the INS overstep the law in seizing Elian?

Do parental rights trump a temporary guardian's ability to raise such issues as the impact of living in a communist state on a child?

The list could expand, of course, but these provide a starting point for a necessary debate. Unfortunately, the nation would tune out a purely partisan review, denying us the chance to draw meaning from this fight over a 6-year-old boy.

Copyright 2000 Miami Herald



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