April 28, 2000

Phony Defenders of Civil Liberties

By Judy Mann. The Washington Post. Friday, April 28, 2000; Page C11

Republicans foraging for political nourishment in the government's recovery of Elian Gonzalez are engaging in the most transparent hypocrisy we've seen in a long time.

The family values, law-and-order set has done a complete turnaround when it comes to a Cuban boy. Those slamming Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton are the same people who natter about the sanctity of the parent-child relationship and who have been behind the massive buildup of paramilitary police throughout the country. They support the use of overwhelming force to patrol drug-infested urban areas and to serve search warrants on drug suspects.

What we saw occur in that house in Little Havana on Saturday happens every night in this country, with two critical differences. First, when paramilitary units serve drug warrants, they are invading the homes of people who have a constitutional right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez were not innocent: They were defying the law and showed no sign of behaving like responsible citizens. The second important difference is that the federal agents carried off Elian's recovery under the glare of a world spotlight and conducted a by-the-book surgical strike. Unlike recent police performances in New York City, no one got killed in Little Havana. And no one was going to get shot or killed by the federal agent who, in the famous photo, was pointing his weapon away from Elian. For critics of the operation to continue talking about a gun being pointed at the boy is the height of irresponsibility. It shows a contempt for the American public that will do the Republicans and their spinmeisters no good.

Nor will their spiteful criticism of Reno. "Why was force used?" asked Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "Wasn't there a more peaceful answer?"

If he had a better solution, he should have picked up the phone. One can't help but wonder whether the critics who say Reno should have continued negotiations would have had the surfeit of patience she demonstrated. It's a good bet that had this been, say, a Haitian child, the law-and-order folks would have raided the place weeks ago, and none of us would have even known it was happening.

Unlike the Republican opportunists who are trying to turn this into an election year circus, most Americans understand that it is the Miami relatives who defied the law who are at fault. Whatever credibility the Miami Cuban community might have had--never much among those familiar with conditions in pre-Castro Cuba--got squandered by the dreadful behavior of Elian's relatives. These are tough times in Cuba, primarily because the United States is continuing its pigheaded embargo instead of normalizing relations with President Fidel Castro. But children such as Elian now have access to health care and education--which they couldn't have had in pre-Castro days unless their sisters worked in tourist brothels.

For Republicans to bleat about excessive force boggles the mind. These are the folks who vote billions of dollars for the so-called war on drugs, which includes middle-of-the-night raids on private homes, with children inside them, and the seizure and forfeiture of drug suspects' property, even if the suspects are never convicted.

"What you see in the Elian case is standard operating procedure in drug cases," says Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center, which is funded by financier George Soros to develop more effective drug policies than the ones we now have. "Every year, this happens tens of thousands of times where one member of a family may be suspected of drug dealing, including marijuana, and you have people screaming and kids present. The photos not being seen are the tens of thousands of children exposed to this when law enforcement shows up to arrest the parents or big brothers for suspected involvement in drugs."

Nearly 90 percent of police departments have paramilitary units, and 46 percent of them have been trained by active-duty armed forces personnel, according to a study by Peter B. Kraska and Victor E. Kappeler, who teach criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University. By the early 1990s, most branches of the military and national guard were becoming involved in drug-law enforcement, both domestically and internationally, they wrote in the February 1997 issue of the journal Social Problems. The use of these units grew tenfold during the '90s, and three-quarters of their assignments were to serve drug-related warrants, which usually involve no-knock entries into private homes.

The militarization of police has been fueled by several factors: federal grants; surplus military equipment, including armored personnel carriers, that have gone to local police departments; and the seizure laws, which allow police departments to keep whatever property they take from drug suspects and then sell it to finance further police operations. These paramilitary units become highly visible when an operation goes bad and innocent people are killed, but they are out there every night, in full tactical gear, heavily armed, busting down doors, throwing suspects on the floor, terrifying children and demonstrating that the most basic civil liberties have been the biggest casualties in the war on drugs.

Despite polls showing that a majority of Americans support Reno's action in the Elian case, House and Senate Republicans are making noises about holding hearings on the raid, focusing on the use of force. Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said the panel should investigate what he called "an increasing pattern of force--excessive force" by the administration in dealing with the public. Given what we know happens in drug raids, that might be a very good idea. But I don't think that's what he has in mind.

Judy Mann can be reached at (202) 334-6109 or by e-mail at

© 2000 The Washington Post Company



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