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Elian Raid's Ferocity Was Out of Bounds

New York Newsday, Thursday, April 27, 2000

By Joseph D. McNamara.

AFTER 35 YEARS in policing, half of them as police chief of two of America's major cities, I was horrified to see an INS agent pointing an assault rifle a few inches from Elian Gonzalez' head. Luckily, no one was killed, but any police chief in the country who had caused such irresponsible danger to the boy would have been fired. If the government had information that a gunfight might ensue requiring that kind of firepower, the raid should not have gone forward.

Whether the family Elian was living with was acting irresponsibly or even in violation of law is irrelevant. The first duty of government is to protect human life. Enforcing laws is one of the ways government protects life. It is not an end in itself. Local police are properly held responsible if they use methods that put innocent people in danger, even when trying to apprehend violent felons. In Miami, this 6-year-old boy was not in danger.

 The Immigration and Naturalization Service had initially placed the boy with his relatives, who obviously loved him and took good care of him. He was not being held by terrorists or kidnapers. It was the federal government that put the boy in danger during the kind of attack typically used against heavily armed killers and drug dealers. No matter how meticulously planned the event and well trained the law enforcement personnel may be, the possibility of something going wrong during a raid is always high. Suppose one of the family had reached for a legally owned firearm, thinking that fanatics had broken in at dawn to harm the boy? The weapon positioned by the INS agent near Elian's head would have sent slugs through adjoining walls, and the bullets and ricochets do not distinguish between armed, dangerous people and innocent children. The performance of federal agents during botched raids at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, and Waco, Texas, in 1993, where 19 innocent children died, are ample evidence of the tragedies that can occur during armed raids. Ironically, when the federal government trains local police SWAT teams, the emphasis is on patience and continued negotiations. Local cops are told that time is on their side. Unless those holding hostages begin to harm them, negotiations should continue. There was no credible reason for the federal government to act so precipitously and so recklessly instead of continuing to negotiate. The government could have sought a contempt order from an impartial judge if the family refused to surrender the boy. However, Elian's relatives had indicated that they would obey a judge's directive, whereas they had good reason to distrust the INS. The INS is part of the executive branch and ultimately under the control of President Bill Clinton. The president's statement that the raid was justified because the law has to be respected lacks credibility, given his history. The argument that the INS made its decision to seize the boy forcibly at dawn because a child belongs with his father is incredible, given the agency's viciousness in routinely separating families in deportation actions.

This is not a federal agency filled with reverence for family values. Most of the individual agents who took part in the raid deserve credit for their restraint and skill, but the heavy-handedness of seizing television cameras represents the same kind of arrogant and repressive mind-set that characterizes the raid. While we are all thankful that no one was shot, we have to wonder why the attorney general who took full responsibility for the children's deaths at Waco apparently learned nothing from that and the Ruby Ridge fatalities caused by federal blundering.

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