The State’s True Colors

Perhaps, alongside thankfulness that against the odds nobody was hurt, one should be almost grateful to the national government for clarifying matters. Political scientists define government as the institution in a given society with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. That means that government authority, when you get to the heart of the matter, depends on the willingness to use force to ensure compliance. As Mao Zedong once put it, quite accurately, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

The predawn raid on the small Miami home of the American relatives of Elian Gonzales did make it clear that the federal government was willing – or even eager? – to use overwhelming force to get its way. But disturbing questions arise. Was the raid justified by the circumstances? Did it have to be undertaken in such an overwhelming, quasi-military fashion, with combat gear and automatic weapons? Was seizing him by pointing automatic weapons in his general direction – wherever the trigger finger was – really in the best interests of the child?

Even more mystifying is the question of why the federal government was not only eager to snatch Elian, but to do so with such overwhelming, intimidating force. I’ve heard and read various theories – that Bill Clinton as governor was burned by the Mariel boatlift and doesn’t want another on his watch, or that he wants normalized relations with Cuba as part of his legacy and thought this would help – but few of them make a great deal of sense.


If Clinton wants to end the embargo on Cuba, for example, he doesn’t have to please Fidel Castro; he has to persuade key constituencies in the United States that it’s not a bad idea. If anything, snatching Elian Gonzales through brute force will make that job more difficult, not easier.

There is a possibility that presents itself, though I’m not sure how to test the hypothesis. Maybe Bill Clinton and key members of his administration are still arrested-development Sixties liberals – not the real radicals, which Clinton never was even back then, but politically ambitious leftists – who had the functioning attitude that the only proper attitude toward communists was prostration. Even if you planned to do something to help out a communist, it wouldn’t be fittin’ and proper unless you first toadied a little bit, begged permission to do a favor, demonstrated your fealty and submission to the people who were, after all, more advanced, more on the side of history than those who were so opportunistic as to worry as much about their own future political viability than the Workers of the World.

Can it be that certain of the Clintonistas still have that antiquated attitude toward Castro – that the important thing is not so much to do the right thing (which I happen to think lifting the embargo would be, for rather different reasons) – but to gain approval from a chic and fashionable (in certain circles) brutal dictator? So that preparing the way for normalizing relations requires licking Castro’s spittle rather than persuading Americans? A chilling thought, perhaps. But I don’t have a better explanation (though this is a hypothesis not an assertion).


The impulse to toady to dictators, so common among Western intellectuals during the century just passed (or passing depending on how you count) could be a miscalculation in this case. Unless I miss my guess, Castro is not the least bit eager for the U.S. embargo and the general (though hardly consistent) policy of treating Castro as a pariah to end. He has used the embargo to unite the Cuban people (at least to some extent) and as a handy whipping-boy to blame for all the manifest and cruel failures of his own policies.

Does Castro really care that the vast majority Cubans live in abject poverty and misery so long as his own power is secure? If he really did, he would change policies, loosen up the controls, stop demonizing entrepreneurs. No, I suspect that long ago Castro, an intelligent man of considerable guile, long ago figured out that part of the price of his own power would be the misery of the Cuban people and that he not only accepts it, he takes a certain bent satisfaction in it.

So if the Clintonistas are sucking up to Castro – demonstrating that they can be as brutal and as arbitrary as any outright dictator in pursuit of policies and outcomes they think Castro desires – by snatching Elian, they might well find out they weren’t doing him any favors. When it comes time to "normalize" relations they may find him spitting in their faces yet again, denouncing the evil and guileful Yanquis yet again, for waiting too long, for not doing it right or even for loosening relations at all.


I did talk to one retired policeman who worked in Florida years ago, who has told me many times in the past that he is often appalled by the reliance on SWAT teams and paramilitary tactics by modern police agencies, who said the raid was justifiable and carried out in textbook-perfect fashion. His only regret is that returning Elian to his father – not necessarily the way it was done but in some fashion – wasn’t done earlier. The boy belongs with his father under normal immigration circumstances, the Miami relatives resisted turning him over to his father, and such an action would have been necessary sooner or later. Surprise and force made it less dangerous, and for a change the feds did it competently, finishing the operation in a few minutes without sparking a riot immediately.

I happen to agree that Elian should have been treated as an unaccompanied minor from the beginning, with his father’s claims (absent credible evidence of gross parental abuse) taking precedence. There’s no question Cuba is a cruel dictatorship and that it is legitimate to wonder whether Juan Miguel is truly a free agent in this matter. Even so, on balance, the boy should have gone with his father.

But did it have to be done this way? Was it necessary to come in with overwhelming force and the look of an occupying army on Holy Saturday? The Clinton administration not so long ago delayed bombing Iraq during Ramadan, but its sensitivity to the religious beliefs and practices of American citizens seems significantly less developed.


I also talked to Joseph McNamara, the former police chief of San Jose who is now a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. He said the bottom line is that the U.S. government put Elian Gonzales’ life in jeopardy without any real justification. "There was no evidence that the family was a threat to the boy, or that the crowds of protestors constituted a threat. Any SWAT-type raid with heavy armament includes the high probability that something unexpected might happen," he said. "The only real danger to the boy came from the action of the government agents who were seizing him. Thank God nobody was hurt, but the potential was there."

Mr. McNamara is fascinated by Attorney General Janet Reno’s explanation that she made the decision to use overwhelming force because the negotiations with the family weren’t going well. "Every hostage or hostage-like negotiation includes tense moments when one doubts the other side is operating in good faith and is tempted to kiss it off and go in with guns blazing," he told us. "But when the federal government trains local police in resolving stand-offs, they emphasize patience, keeping the negotiations active and understanding that time is on your side. They should check their own guidelines."


Two other aspects are worth pondering. The feds began to talk about a forceful seizure of Elian after the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal ruled, in what was viewed as a mild reprimand of the government’s eagerness, that Elian should stay in the United States until the court heard his asylum case May 11, less than two weeks away. And the propensity of federal law enforcement agencies to use overwhelming, virtually military force as the first resort rather than as a backup was once again on display. Federal law enforcement agencies have come to resemble an occupying military force more than peace officers in a free republic.

The 11th Circuit had ruled that Elian’s petition for asylum – even though it was obviously put forth under influence from his Miami family – deserved to be heard, and that Elian should stay in the country at least until the May 11 hearing and maybe until an actual decision is rendered. It seems obvious to me that the Clinton administration, which had already decided on getting the boy to his father for whatever reason, was concerned that it might actually lose in court.

Could it be that various people figured that if Elian were given to his father his father might at least make him less certain about the idea of seeking asylum – maybe even talk him into dropping the idea – so the Clintonistas wouldn’t be put into the position of having a court reverse a decision they had already made? If so, what does this say about the administration’s vaunted respect for the rule of law as if its entire record in office weren’t testimony to its essential criminality?


"The final irony," Joe McNamara told me, "is that Republicans in Congress, who have been urging the feds to beef up local police to conduct similar overbearing raids in drug cases every day, are shocked deeply shocked." Seeing the actual photographs of the jackbooted federal thug terrorizing a six-year-old boy shocked thousands of Americans – although if Tuesday polls are accurate the shock seems to be wearing off. But, as I detailed in the last chapter of my Ruby Ridge book, terrorizing innocent civilians with paramilitary tactics has become a way of life for all too many federal law enforcement agencies.

This militarization of law enforcement is – or should be – an ongoing concern for Americans who desire to live in some semblance of freedom. It illustrates that the empire, in its days of decadence, has become not so much a police state as a military-police state. Agents of the Food and Drug Administration, for heaven’s sake, carry weapons and operate like paramilitary SWAT teams when raiding evil terrorists who give B-12 shots in a clinic.

After years of militarization through training and example, the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the military from doing civilian law enforcement (with the Drug War exception, of course) might as well be a dead letter across the board. Almost all local police agencies think and act like military entities these days. Whether predawn raids are carried out by actual military personnel matters very little. If anything, the actual military people might be more competent and less brutal.


One final rant for today. Janet Reno put on her usual "I just had no choice but I shed tears" show. How many more times will people buy it? Apparently, to judge by the fact that she is once again the toast of the Imperial City, at least one more time. Everybody is busy understanding her pain and admiring her ability not to shrink from ordering brutal acts in the name of maintenance of power (and being relieved that it went off smoothly for a change).

It’s worth remembering that it was Waco that really earned Janet the admiration of the Imperial City establishment. Before that she was viewed as this odd duck from south Florida who didn’t really fit in. But she was willing to order an attack on those pesky cultists, then take "responsibility" for it in a way that didn’t cost her or anybody in authority anything real – no apologies, no resignations, no disciplinary measures, and blame heaped on the victims. That’s the kind of finessing of genuine accountability the establishment can admire. It tells you everything you need to know about the moral rot at the center of the empire.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).