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Jewish World Review April 4, 2000 /28 Adar II, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The littlest fugitive, or: They're coming for Elian -- INSULTING. NERVY. GRATUITOUS. Provocative. Cruel. Bullying. Those are a few of the adjectives that might apply to the U.S. Justice Department's latest letter to Elian Gonzalez's family in Miami.

The threat in the letter is more than implied:

If the family doesn't agree -- now, in writing, signature on the dotted line -- to hand over the kid within three days after their last court appeal is denied, the Justice Department "would have no choice but to move forward with the termination of Elian's parole as of Thursday at 9 a.m.''

Jawohl!You can almost hear the lawyers' heels click.

The family is given a stark choice: Sign away little Elian's rights outside the courtroom -- for example, the right to ask Congress for relief -- or the U.S. Marshals will be at the door at nine in the morning, and the kid will be on a plane shortly thereafter, bound for Fidel Castro's little island resort for deprogramming. (It may take a while to re-indoctrinate even a 6-year-old after he's tasted freedom. No doubt he'll get special treatment.)

This kind of browbeating is so unnecessary. Elian's family has repeatedly said that it has no intention of defying the law. ("We have said, and we continue to affirm, that the family will obey the law.'') But that's not good enough for Janet Reno's lawheads. Having only flexed her muscles at the siege of the Branch Davidians outside Waco, our tough attorney general is now going to show us what she can really do: overpower a 6-year-old. Maybe we should all be grateful that General Reno isn't demanding that he be turned over bound and gagged.

Nor is that the end of the Justice Department's demands of Elian's family: If it doesn't want to lose custody immediately, it must agree to argue its case on the Justice Department's timetable. That is, present its arguments before the appellate court in time for this whole, convoluted matter to be adjudicated and a ruling handed down by this Tuesday, April 4. (ital) Macht schnell(unital)

So not only does the family have to explicitly forswear Elian's right to appeal beyond the courts -- to Congress, or to the American people, or for political asylum (fat chance, considering this attorney general), or for executive clemency (not that this chief executive would be clement) or maybe just to the kindness of strangers or the mercy of Heaven, they better hurry up about it. Before they hear the knock on the door. And, to think, some of us thought it could never happen here.

Happily, there are still courts in this country. Just as the threatening letter from the Justice Department was being delivered, the appellate court in Atlanta set arguments on this case for the week of May 8, giving Elian another precious month of freedom.

Do you suppose the Justice Department will now demand that the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals speed up its timetable, too, to conform to the rules of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service?

Janet Reno's Justice Department seems to have confused the pursuit of justice with the pursuit of a 6-year-old. This little boy may have survived the watery deep, but now he's in an entirely different kind of shark-infested waters.

It's nothing personal on the Justice Department's part, you understand. And it isn't. That may be the problem. It's completely impersonal. Here is another instance of blind obedience to the dead letter of the law, to routine and rules and regulations, to the great god Policy. To borrow a phrase from Hannah Arendt's coverage of the Eichmann trial, it's the banality of evil. No wonder, when she was in Miami, Janet Reno declined to meet with the little boy. He might become real to her, not just another case file to be disposed of. She might betray a hint of humanity.

But a bureaucracy doesn't get personally involved. It doesn't ask why a father, on being told his child has been rescued from a watery grave and given refuge, would not rush here to claim his son, or at least hold the boy's hand after his ordeal. It doesn't ask why a father would just wait for his son to be sent to him, the way you'd expect a package.

A bureaucracy has no curiosity. It doesn't wonder why a father would simply repeat and amplify the party line, as if he had no choice. It doesn't look too closely at the kind of regime whose claim to this boy our government is now supporting so avidly. It just follows orders. And gives them.

In another of his strange, rambling monologues, Fidel Castro, aka The Law in Cuba, has said that the boy's father may come to this country -- but only to pick up his son. Let's give Dad not just a visa, but residence here, so he can testify in one of Florida's family courts, where this case belongs. Let him come here with his new family, leaving no hostages behind, and have a grand family reunion. Then we'll see how eager everybody is to return to the workers' paradise.

But a bureaucracy has no curiosity. It doesn't wonder why a father would simply repeat and amplify the party line, as if he had no choice. It doesn't look too closely at the kind of regime whose claim to this boy our government is now supporting so avidly. It just follows orders. And gives them.

It is an exaggeration to claim that this administration will have no historic legacy. For the first time since before The War, the one between the states, an American government proposes to enforce a kind of fugitive slave act, and send this subject, this chattel, now officially deemed to have no more rights of his own than Dred Scott did, back into captivity. That's quite a historic legacy. And it will haunt those who created it for as long as men are concerned about the future of freedom. Freedom even for a child. Especially for a child.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate